Verizon to hike TV prices

April 28, 2008: 11:20 AM ET

By Scott Moritz, writer

Seeing no signs that the slowing economy is crimping consumer spending, Verizon (VZ) plans to raise prices on its nascent TV service.

The New York phone giant reported first quarter earnings that met Thomson Financial's analyst estimate but missed the Bloomberg consensus by a penny Monday. On a conference call following the release, the company blamed the loss of a large former MCI business customer for some of the profit weakness.

The most striking news of all, however, was Verizon's bullish take on consumer behavior. Verizon said it has been watching for warning signs, like increases in so-called uncollectible or deadbeat customers, but so far hasn't seen anything to worry about. "I've seen no changes," finance chief Doreen Toben told analysts on the call, referring to a spending slowdown.

Verizon is feeling so confident about paying subscribers that it plans a price hike.

"We will move up prices at the end of this quarter or next quarter," Verizon executives said on the call. "We are very comfortable moving up the pricing at this point."

The company said it probably won't tamper with its $99-a-month promotional offer for its package of phone, Internet and TV services. Instead, officials said they're looking to hike the price of the company's a la carte TV service, which launched in 2005 and costs $48 a month.

Verizon has been winning business from cable companies like Comcast (CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Cablevision (CVC) as it pushes its Web video and TV strategy. On the flip side, as the cable companies have started selling phone services, telcos like AT&T (T) and Verizon have seen the decline in landline phone subscribers accelerate. In the first quarter, Verizon's total phone line count dropped 8.2% from the prior year, a slight increase over the 8.1% pace for 2007. And residential lines fell by an eye-popping 10.9% from the same quarter a year ago.

Raising prices in the face of a economic slowdown is a bold move that borrows from the cable industry's long-held strategy of continual rate hikes. Two things work in Verizon's favor here, says one analyst: Phone and TV subscribers aren't known to be the most vigilant consumers. They may not even notice they're paying more.

Verizon's about to find out.

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