On Wednesday, Comcast gave its subscribers a new reason they shouldn't cut the cord: The "Watchathon."
Beginning March 25, any Comcast subscriber with a cable subscription and access to video-on-demand viewing can dial up over 1,000 episodes from over 100 shows, including hits like Game of Thrones or Dexter. Yes, that's right: every show from every season from major pay TV services like HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax will available for free for a full week, whether or not you have premium-channel subscriptions. The Watchathon extends to basic-cable hits like Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead.
In other words, every so often, even Comcast can act just like everyone wishes they would all the time.
Normally, Comcast holds an iron grip around the pockets of most subscribers. Want ESPN, ABC, NBC, USA, and Bravo? Of course you do. But Comcast forces 150 more channels of utter dreck down your throats, and makes you pay over $100 a month for the privilege. In a Harris branding study released this month, Comcast finished 51st out of the 60 companies surveyed, with a corporate reputation that Harris said was "poor".
But work the peasants too hard, and a revolution will brew. To forestall that day, Comcast customers are eating cake, at least for now. (Here's a full list of shows included in the Watchathon. Note that it doesn't offer a free, one-week subscription to HBO, Starz or Showtime, just a pass to their proprietary shows.)
Comcast Is A Streaming Service, Too
When consumers talk about streaming services, the conversation starts with Netflix, then maybe Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime. If these services were baseball teams, Netflix might be the Oakland Athletics, always looking for an underutilized asset it can exploit — in its case, the massive, inexpensive, and still popular back catalog of television shows.
If that's true, Comcast is the New York Yankees: absolutely dominating the markets it serves, and buying up whatever it wants. And by owning a majority stake in NBC Universal, Comcast is a program creator as well as an aggregator like Netflix.
Furthermore, over five million U.S. homes are now "zero TV" homes, Nielsen reported this week, a figure that's doubled in the last six years. These cord-cutters are just five percent of the total U.S. TV viewing audience, but it's a growing trend. And cord-cutters, by definition, aren't choosing Comcast.
But until now, Comcast and Netflix have been polar opposites. Comcast provides everything that pay or free TV provides, hundreds of channels worth, but with no real depth. After a month or so, TV episodes drop into that nebulous twilight zone where they're only available for purchase from Amazon, Hulu, or Vudu before they're eventually packaged into boxed Blu-ray sets. A few years later, Netflix scoops them up into its ever-expanding back catalog.
The same holds true, quality-wise. For all of the low-budget "B" movies that some criticize Netflix for buying up, they're just the equivalent of the "16 and Pregnant" reality ilk that MTV and its brethren commission. And while Netflix would like to buy up as many recent movies as it can, Comcast tries to offer "Catch Up" options for viewers to watch older episodes of shows that are currently airing.
Throwing Its Weight Around
The difference, however, is one of budget. Comcast's quarterly revenues usually top $16 billion; Netflix recorded $945 million last quarter. But Netflix's revenue is steadily rising, giving the company more money to invest in either original programming, which competes directly with NBC, or buying up more movies and TV shows. Either way, Comcast loses. Watchathon is just Comcast beating its chest and roaring its displeasure - quite possibly to no avail at all.
There's one important component to the promotion, however, that's not immediately apparent: many of the shows that Comcast is promoting, including the premium ones, are ongoing. Sure, you'll get to watch seven seasons of Dexter, if that's what you want. But when Season 8 rolls around this June, you'll have to sign up for Showtime to see how it ends. (The first sample is always free.)
Still, for years customers have clamored for an a la carte option, a way to pick individual channels without bundled stations they didn't want. For years, cable and satellite companies have ignored them. For a week, we get what we want. It's not clear how much money Comcast spent to try and buy our happiness, but who cares? After all, we paid for it.
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