The Valuation of a Cable Customer

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Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson recently set a valuation of an OTT customer from Sling TV at a quarter of the level of a normal Dish Networks customer. Since almost every small cable provider in the industry is interested in their valuation, I thought I’d talk today about Moffett’s numbers and how they might relate to cable valuation for small cable operators.

First the numbers. Moffett said that a normal Dish Networks cable customer is worth $1,100. That valuation reflects both the operating margin on Dish’s cable business as well as the average expected time that a cable customer stays with the company. Valuation in the industry in general is based on a multiple of operating margin – revenues less operating expenses. I don’t know what Moffett used as a multiple in this case since the valuation of Dish is muddled by the fact that they also own a mountain of spectrum.

Moffett set the value of a Sling TV customer (also operated by Dish Networks) at only $274. This low valuation tells us several things. First, the margins on Sling TV has to be significantly less. The company is obviously setting a low price to attract customers. And while Sling TV has a much smaller channel line-up than the big bundles at Dish Networks, Sling TV includes a lot of the most popular (and expensive) channels such as ESPN and Disney. I would also think that the valuation reflects a much higher churn for Sling TV. Customers are free to come and go easily and can buy service one month at a time. This contrasts to many Dish customers who get low prices by signing up for 1-year or longer contracts.

There are also other cost characteristics that are different for a satellite customer compared to on online customer. For instance, for a satellite customer Dish has to cover the cost of the satellite networks, the cost of the receivers used by customers. Sling TV has to instead just pay for transport of programming through Internet. Both parts of the business have to cover advertising and the cost of billing and back office. But it seems like Sling TV would have lower costs since customers must prepay by credit card. It’s hard to know which has a cost advantage, but I would guess it’s Sling TV. But Dish has millions of customers and would have some significant economy of scale.  

How do these valuations compare to the valuations of small cable providers? The big difference between terrestrial cable providers and Dish is having to provide a fleet of technicians in trucks and maintaining a landline network of some sort. Small cable operators also have to operate a headend and always face upgrades to keep up with the latest innovations in the industry. These costs are far more costly per customer for a small cable operator than what Dish is paying. I would think that due to economy of scale that Dish also has an advantage on costs like customer service, billing, etc. The equipment costs for customers are probably similar for Dish and terrestrial cable operators.

I have analyzed the books of a number of small triple play providers in recent years and if costs are allocated properly to products I haven’t seen one that has a positive margin on the cable TV product. While small cable systems generally charge more than Dish Networks they also pay more for programming. But the main reason that small terrestrial cable operators lose money is the work load associated with supporting cable TV. I’ve done detailed time studies at clients and have seen that in a triple play company that way more than half of the calls to customer service and the truck rolls are due to cable issues. If a small company allocates expenses properly between products, then cable is almost guaranteed to be a loser.

What does that mean for valuation? It’s probably obvious that if one of the major product lines of a company is losing money that the negative earnings pulls down the overall valuation of the business. Said more plainly, if the cable business at a small company is losing money, then that part of the business has no value or even a negative value. This is a conversation I have with clients all of the time, and most small cable providers have at least thought about the ramifications of dropping their cable product.

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because if somebody drops cable then they need to also pare expenses that were used to support cable. For a small company that means cutting back on customer service and field technician positions – something that small companies are loathe to do. Small carriers also worry that cutting cable will cost them overall customers, particularly if they are competing against somebody else that offers the triple play. It’s definitely a tough decision, but I’ve heard that as many as fifty small telcos have ditched traditional cable.

I’m also seeing for the first time that many new network operators are launching new markets without cable TV. Or they are instead looking at models where some external vendor like Skitter TV sells cable to customers.

Unfortunately, the cost of programming is still climbing fast and the margins on cable keep worsening for small cable operators. I expect that some time within the next five years or so we will reach a flash point where the collective wisdom of the industry will say that it’s time to ditch cable – and at that point we might see a flood of small companies exiting the business. But I don’t know of a harder decision to make for a small triple play provider.