IPTV: It's not just for telcos anymore

Earnings calls always provide a glimpse into the workings of super-secretive multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), who usually treat the outside world with just a little more respect than San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

Under regulatory duress, the MVPDs bare as little of their souls as they can to analysts and the media, who jump on any scrap like a loose ball bouncing on a fake grass field. As someone who looks at the IPTV space, I've recovered a couple pieces of information from the recent spate of announcements: First, telcos are still beating cablecos when it comes to attracting new video subscribers; and second, IPTV doesn't necessarily mean telcoTV anymore.

On the first note, both Verizon (NYSE: VZ) FiOS (ok, a peripheral IPTV play for you sticklers) and AT&T (NYSE: T) U-verse reported subscriber gains as cablecos continued to leak subscribers like a football with a spike puncture. Worldwide, IPTV dominated the playing field, but, again, that's because worldwide cable infrastructure is about as robust as the electronic system in the New Orleans Superdome.

I'd be disingenuous to suggest that these results surprise me or that I believe they're happening because telcos have a superior product. Cablecos have spent the last 60 years nurturing a hate-hate relationship with their customer bases, and a change in that attitude isn't going happen overnight--if at all. No, what the telcos are offering is nice, but they're mostly gaining because they are not cable operators.

The second item I've gleaned thus far is that IP is no longer the plaything of just the telephone companies. Although I don't believe we'll ever hear a cable operator use the term "IPTV," there is a general movement towards IP that says IPTV without adding the TV part.

Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) Chairman-CEO Glenn Britt alluded to this movement when he said his MSO is taking an "evolutionary" approach to IP. For those not skilled in reading between the lines, that means TWC, as much as it might like, can't tear out 60 years' worth of infrastructure and install IP, but that it's moving as fast as it can because it sees its subscribers on the other side of the digital divide and wants to build a bridge between its headend and the plethora of connected devices they're buying at retail.

In the end, IPTV may never be a term you'll hear when Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) or Time Warner Cable or Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) pitches service to you. But, when you connect your tablet to your TV or your TV to the Internet, you'll be getting IPTV--no matter what it's called. -Jim

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