Comcast—the global service-provider/media-producer conglomerate that everyone seems to love to hate—has been making a lot of news lately. Fortunately for Comcast, the news these days isn’t just about aborted acquisitions and unhinged customer-service reps.
The cable-TV giant unveiled a new online TV service aimed at cord cutters (and cord nevers); launched a powerful new set-top box; beefed up its connected-home platform; partnered with EA to develop a digital game-streaming service, and is rumored to be on the verge of launching an Internet TV platform to compete with YouTube.
Since many of those topics are of interest to TechHive readers, we reached out to Comcast Cable’s executive vice president of consumer services, Marcien Jenckes for more information. This interview was conducted over email.
TechHive: Is Stream, Comcast’s new online TV service, just a PR exercise? Are you simply trying to improve your reputation among younger audiences? With the reported limitations, it honestly sounds a bit halfhearted at this stage.
Marcien Jenckes : First, it’s important to note that millennials actually make up the largest percentage of our X1 users and we just had our best second-quarter video results in the past nine years. [Editor’s note: X1 is Comcast’s latest cloud-connected set-top box platform.]
Second, a few of the so-called “limitations” are a little short sighted and miss the whole point of the offering. Stream is a great product designed for a very specific consumer: those who want a smaller group of channels and primarily watch video on a computer or device.
And remember, this is a brand new service that we are beta testing in a few markets this year. We’ll add even more content and ways to watch as we roll out to more customers, like the ability to watch Stream on a TV and more live channels to watch outside the home. We’ll also build in features like “pick your premium” and entertainment tiers like kids or sports.
Right now though, Stream gives you a skinny bundle of channels to watch on laptops, phones and tablets in your house and we included some of the most watched networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and HBO. Plus, you get Streampix and a cloud DVR. Out of the house, you can tune in to thousands of on demand movies and shows from this same channel line-up and watch anything you recorded. Pretty great deal for just $15. So think of Stream as a moment in time and as a product that will surely evolve and make even better in the months ahead.
TH: Xfinity Games, currently in beta, is another interesting development. What sort of audience are you after with that service?
MJ: Xfinity Games is an opportunity to integrate another experience right into the X1 platform and we think it will appeal to casual gamers and families. It’s in beta now, so we can work out the kinks, and we have a terrific partner in EA that will help us make the experience better and better over time.
TH: What has the consumer response been like in the three or so years that Comcast’s connected-home offering, Xfinity Home, has been in business?
MJ: Well, we really started Xfinity Home as a home security platform, and the home control aspect has grown and evolved over time along with advancements in technology and consumer adoption. We’re now at a place where I think Xfinity Home is ready to take off and offer the best of both worlds. No one else is really positioned to do that right now. We have more than 500,000 customers, new partnerships in place with some terrific tech companies, and a real vision for where we want to take the platform.
TH: As you open Xfinity Home to third-party connected-home devices and platforms, will Xfinity Home solve the fragmentation issue afflicting this market?
MJ: I think we can be one of the solutions for sure. Look, there has been an explosion in the number of connected devices out there, but there still isn’t a single, simple platform that can tie them all together. Xfinity Home has the potential to be that comprehensive solution.
So we’re partnering with as many popular device makers as possible, so that when you buy a Lutron lighting system for example, it works seamlessly with all your other Xfinity Home security and control functions. These controls are also going to be accessible in one app, so you don’t have to dive in and out of dozens of different experiences. And by being on the same platform, we’re making individual devices smarter by letting them talk and interact with each other. The thermostat, the wearable on your wrist, the lights in your house, and the opener in your garage—all should be enabled to trigger one another and just start working as you pull into the driveway.
TH: The industry likes to call TV, Internet, telephone service bundles the “triple play.” With landline telephony on the decline, could the connected home, broadband, and TV be the new triple play?
MJ: We don’t have plans to change our triple-play structure. Remember, for tens of millions of people, having a reliable home phone is still very relevant and important. And there are some big saving opportunities for home phone users too.
Today, people spend billions of dollars on cell-phone charges related to international calling and millions more on worldwide calling cards. So we just added five new countries [Editor’s note: that would be China, India, Mexico, Singapore, and South Korea] to our most popular home phone plan, Xfinity Voice Unlimited, a change that’s free and has the potential to save some users hundreds of dollars each year.
We’re trying to reinvent the home phone from a thing on the wall in your kitchen to an experience that is versatile, portable and integrated. As an example, our phone customers can use other connected devices to receive or make calls and texts. It’s popular with parents because their kids can use it to talk and text on their tablet or iPod, without the need for their own smartphone. Also, if you’re traveling abroad, you can use this feature to call or text using a Wi-Fi connection, without racking up international wireless charges.
TH: What’s the idea behind the new Share live-streaming app, which is now available to all Xfinity subscribers?
MJ: To us, it’s all about sharing personal moments, big and small. The difference between our service and say a Periscope, is that our communication is more one-to-one or one-to-a-few as opposed to a communication to the masses. We wanted to make it a little more intimate. Also, we incorporated the TV into the live streaming experience, which hadn’t really been done before. When you’re watching a live stream of your nephew’s college graduation on your 50-inch flat screen, it can feel like you’re right there with him.
We’re also one of the first to use WebRTC in this way and chose it because it’s scalable, flexible and interoperable. That way we can evolve Xfinity Share quickly and add new features along the way. [Editor’s note: Web Real-Time Communication is an API drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium for browser-to-browser video applications.]
TH: Can you tell us a bit more about the short-form online video service Comcast first talked about last year? From what we’ve heard, it sounds more like Vessel than YouTube, but for the TV instead of the computer.
MJ: Ultimately, we want to give people all their entertainment options on one, easy-to-use platform. That means all the TV shows and movies you love, plus potentially professional and semi-pro web video, user-generated content from the web, games, apps, and more. The X1 platform is built for this type of content blending, and we’re exploring all types of partnerships that can bring it together in one experience. We hope to have more to share soon.
TH: The X1 platform sounds great, it isn’t yet available to everyone, and won’t be for another two to three years. What are you doing about that?
MJ: It’s clear that one of the reasons new customers are coming to Comcast is X1. It’s available in every market we serve and we are accelerating its rollout by installing up to 30,000 boxes per day. We know users love it and we want to get it into the hands of as many people as possible.
TH: We’ve seen some OTT players embrace 4K, and you’ve got your Xfinity in UHD initiative, but overall it’s still a niche market. When do you think we might see UHD and HDR content in most homes?
MJ: I think like many things, consumer demand will determine how fast 4K and HDR content become pervasive. The reality is that today, the total number of movies and shows being produced in 4K UHD and HDR is still quite small. Our job is to make sure when the networks and studios really start to lean into developing this type of content. We have the tools in place to deliver a great experience.
From a network and technology perspective, we’re ready today. Last year, we launched an Xfinity in UHD app on Samsung TVs that includes NBCU content, IMAX films and more. Later this year, we’ll have a 4K set-top box and 4K UHD On Demand library available to all of our video customers. We’ve always been a leader when it comes to providing the highest quality video experience across platforms and 4K won’t be any different.
TH: You’ve personally emphasized the need for enhanced transparency on the pricing and billing front. What are some of things Comcast is doing to alleviate this problem?
MJ: People should know what types of services they have and exactly what they are paying for them. Period. So we’re taking a hard look at making pricing more consistent around the country and redesigning our bills. Plus, we have a team rethinking policies and fees that don’t make sense.
Editor's note: This story was changed after publication to correct an error introduced during editing. Comcast's Stream is an Internet TV service, not an over-the-top service. You must subscribe to Comcast's broadband service in order to also subscribe to Stream.