Cable Show: Will Economic Pressures Force Cable Operators To Offer Fewer Channels?

Wall Street analysts warned cable operators on Tuesday that they’d better fix their clunky user interfaces and lousy consumer service if they want to avoid a showdown with Internet and technology powers such as Google and Apple. The big threat “isn’t really Netflix. It’s something we haven’t seen yet,” Citigroup Investment Research’s Jason Bazinet said in a panel discussion about the industry’s financial prospects at the National Cable Show in Chicago. He raised one possibility that has grabbed many people’s imaginations recently — that Apple might design a TV set that would work with programming from a pay TV rival such as DirecTV. “That plays to Apple’s strength, which is not your strength, which is the operating system,” Bazinet said, calling cable’s user experience “a Rube Goldberg contraption.” Morgan Stanley’s Benjamin Swinburne says that although the Street is less concerned than it was a few months ago about Netflix becoming a major competitor, “that doesn’t mean what Netflix has done couldn’t be done by someone with a much bigger check book.” Deutsche Bank Securities’ Douglas Mitchelson also urged cable operators to improve the user experience before Internet services have a chance to establish themselves. He says that investors also are “pretty nervous” about the rising prices that cable operators are paying for programming — especially now that broadcast networks are demanding cash from systems that rebroadcast signals from their local stations. The Street would become just as fearful, though, if Comcast declared war on other cable operators by using the Internet to offer TV programming to consumers who live outside its franchises. Collins Stewart’s Tom Eagan, who’s optimistic about cable’s prospects, says investors “want more insight” into how operators make decisions.

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