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Comcast Survives the First Wave of Web TV Services

The biggest cable company in the country doesn't appear to have lost many subscribers to Web TV services like HBO Now and Sling TV.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Last spring was the first time you could watch HBO and ESPN, pay TV’s biggest draws, without a pay TV subscription. That meant you could cut the cord and order Web TV subscriptions via services like HBO Now and Sling TV.

So how many people did that?

Not enough to show up on Comcast’s second-quarter earnings report this morning: The company says its pay TV subscription business had its second-best Q2 in the last nine years.

This might be confusing at first glance, since Comcast says it lost 69,000 video subscribers in Q2. But that’s a big improvement over a year ago, when Comcast lost 144,000 subscribers during the same time frame, which is traditionally crummy for the pay TV guys.

And it’s much better than Wall Street’s expectations: Analyst Craig Moffett says Wall Street expected a loss of 109,000 subscribers.

So what happened? Are the Web TV services not appealing to cord-cutters? Is Comcast doing a better job of holding on to customers? Both? Something else? “There’s a little bit of everything in the real world,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts shrugged during the company’s conference call today.

That not’s very helpful, but it is probably true. The reality is that it’s hard to determine why any single pay TV company’s numbers moved in a single quarter. For instance: Earlier this week Verizon reported disappointing numbers for its pay TV service — which it blamed on its dispute with ESPN over a TV bundle plan. So it’s possible that a good chunk of Comcast’s lift came from Verizon’s fall, since the two compete for customers in several markets.

And even if the new Web TV services are doing gangbuster numbers, they might not show up in Comcast’s results for a while. Especially if the bulk of the customers are from the audience HBO says it’s targeting — some 10 million people who have broadband subscriptions but don’t pay for TV.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Comcast, which became a company with more broadband subscribers than video subscribers last quarter, kept that trend going. It added another 180,000 Internet customers in Q2, and now sells broadband to 22.3 million customers and video to 22.6 million customers.

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