Comcast sees the writing on the wall: cable-based TV will not survive the next decade. Its value is fast eroding because it can't compete with on-demand, Internet-delivered TV across all screens. Unlike their music counterparts, TV executives have pulled their heads out of the sand in time and are working hard to survive this monumental shift. To do so, however, they need to choose the right battles to fight.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts spoke at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco yesterday afternoon. He was interviewed by Federated Media CEO John Battelle.
I discerned three important nuggets from Roberts:
- Comcast will continue to invest in higher-bandwidth connections into homes.
- Comcast will invest in content more aggressively.
- Comcast will officially launch Hulu-competing Fancast.com by the year's end.
The first two points make a ton a sense. The third point is... well, miscalculated.
I am convinced Brian Roberts understands the challenges ahead. This is why Comcast and Time Warner (which also clearly "gets" it) have been aggressively pursuing a "TV Everywhere" model, which promises to give their subscribers exactly what they want: anytime, anywhere access to any TV content. They have to do this to keep their customer bases.
But in a TV Everywhere world, the role of the multi-system operator is diminished. Your cable or satellite TV provider will no longer be your only (legal) means of watching the current episode of HBO's Entourage. In a TV Everywhere world, Entourage will be available on literally thousands of websites and mobile apps, as long as you can authenticate yourself as a paying cable or satellite subscriber with the HBO package.
In this world, the value of Comcast as a content distributor is eroded. Comcast risks becoming a "dumb pipe," providing little more than bandwidth. To avoid that fate, Comcast recognizes that it needs to move upstream and own or control the content itself. This is why it will buy NBC in the next few months.
Moving upstream and investing in content is a smart move for Comcast.
Moving downstream and competing with Hulu via Fancast.com is a bad move. Here's why:
- Hulu already has a huge lead, having aggressively grown its audience for more than a year now.
- Hulu would be the ideal launching pad for TV Everywhere, because of its mega-loyal and passionate audience.
- Comcast is about to own a third of Hulu. Ad revenue from Hulu will ultimately end up back in Comcast's coffers.
- In a TV Everywhere world, thousands of websites will likely present the same TV content as Fancast.com. It will be a terribly crowded space, with a ton of noise. The sites that perform best will be the ones that create the best user experience for viewing TV content.
- Comcast has a poor track record with UI and user experience design. Need I compare more than Comcast DVR's UI to TiVo's UI?
- Strong consumer brands drive website traffic. Comcast has a horrendous consumer brand. Comcast users generally do not like being Comcast users.
- Comcast's interest is in the broadest distribution of TV content, not exclusive distribution. Locking up certain content for Fancast.com alone would be a mistake. Consumers would see it as a violation of their rights, akin to the Net Neutrality debate.
Comcast can survive (and perhaps prosper) through the death of cable-based TV, if it makes smart strategic decisions. That means focusing on where it provides the most value in the TV supply chain: Internet connectivity and content investment. Creating a content website that competes with its distributors is not a smart move.
Comcast should pull the plug on Fancast.com or simply use it as a TV Everywhere authentication testing site.
Guest author: Mike Berkley served as CEO of SplashCast Media from 2006 to 2009, pioneering the concept of social TV in partnership with Hulu. Berkley is currently involved in the TV Everywhere initiative, consults on product strategy for online media companies, and maintains the TV News Stream blog covering all things related to online premium video.