Charter Communications dropped the ball in a big way when it allowed Comcast to snatch Time Warner Cable from its grasp in a $45 billion acquisition. Now Charter has to come up with a fallback plan. What's next for the nation's fourth-largest cable company?

Charter isn't likely to try and spoil the merger. But it is considering other directions already. Industry watchers say the company is looking at buying up some of the 3 million subscribers that Comcast expects to shed as a condition of the merger.

"It's easy to imagine they would be first in line," said Craig Moffett, the head of research for the firm MoffettNathanson.

But like its attempt to secure TWC, Charter's move to secure those freed-up customers may also face resistance from other cable firms. Cox Communications — the country's third-largest cable company with 4.5 million basic video subscribers — is said to be interested in snapping up those customers, too. That's led some investors to wonder whether Charter might try and buy Cox outright.

Such a move would make a lot of sense; John Malone, the chairman of Liberty Media and Charter's biggest stakeholder, said last year that Charter could become a "horizontal acquisition machine." Pursuing Cox would be consistent with that philosophy, and a merger would put Charter in a stronger position to challenge a Comcast that had won control over a third of the pay-TV market.

To date, though, Cox hasn't signaled its interest in selling — which could push Charter further down the ladder to pursue what Moffett called a "roll-up strategy of the third tier" of cable providers.

Either way, it looks like the cable industry's consolidation isn't over yet.