Comcast Continues to Expand Its Media Lead

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Along with an astounding roller-coaster ride, the market this week has delivered evidence of increased competition in the world of pay TV, including a legal skirmish between the biggest cable and satellite operators and sliding subscriber numbers that hit many of the industry's providers.

On the legal front, a false-advertising lawsuit by Comcast (NAS: CMCSA) , the big enchilada of cable, againstDirecTV (NAS: DTV) , its satellite counterpart, saw victory go to the latter, when a federal judge in Chicago refused to issue a requested restraining order against DirecTV. The issue involved DTV's ads for its NFL Sunday Ticket package, which delivers all Sunday afternoon NFL games, ostensibly for "free."

Comcast contends, however, that missing from the inducements is the disclosure that the two-year Sunday Ticket offering includes substantial pricing cancellation charges. In fact, customers who opt out of the second year of the deal will remain responsible for the full two-season commitment to DirecTV.

The issue may not stop with the judge's ruling, however. Comcast may still seek a preliminary injunction, which, like the temporary restraining order it was denied, could provide the company with relief, albeit following a more extensive round of arguments. Knowing the Comcast management as I do, my advice on this one is to stay tuned.

Beyond that, Cablevision (NYS: CVC) and DISH Network (NAS: DISH) both saw their pay-TV subscriber numbers decline. In Cablevision's case, the shrinkage amounted to about 23,000 customers, versus 2,900 additions in 2010's second quarter.  Nevertheless, its profits increased by 44%, largely as a result of its acquisition of western U.S. cable provider Bresnan Communications. Dish, however, watched 135,000 customers skedaddle, in part because of an internal decision not to pursue "low-margin" customers.

Three reasons are typically offered for subscriber falloffs: increasing competition from video incursions by telecom companiesVerizon (NYS: VZ) and AT&T (NYS: T) , "cord cutting" by customers opting to obtain their video from the Web, and the slowdown in housing and general economic conditions that reduce the rate of new customer installations. I remain convinced that, for now, economic softness is the major factor in the video-subscriber slide.

Comcast, which I continue to favor among the pay-TV purveyors, experienced a video-subscriber attrition numbering 238,000. However, its addition of 144,000 broadband subscribers indicates that its cable-customer profile continues to be upgraded.

Finally, I'm convinced that industry observers haven't yet fully appreciated Comcast's January purchase from General Electric of the majority stake in NBC Universal, which played a key role in a 51% increase in Comcast's quarterly revenues. Given this combination of strengths, I suggest that Fools with a penchant for media opportunities add Comcast to their individual versions of My Watchlist.   

At the time this article was published Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AT&T. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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