While the tech world’s attention is firmly planted on the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, and their bids to take over the living room, Comcast is having a party.
"There is nothing they can offer that will make it worth it."
The company is in the midst of its 50th anniversary, celebrated from 30 Rock to Philadelphia’s Comcast Center — and to many within the company, the new Xbox with its focus on live TV in particular doesn’t seem like such a big deal. As executives point out, Comcast customers already have most of the Xbox’s advanced TV functionality. They can already search by show, and while voice search isn’t ready yet, it’s coming as part of the new X1 platform. More importantly, customers can record and watch TV shows with the Comcast DVR. You can use the Xbox to navigate between TV channels, sure, but if you want to watch something from DVR or on demand, you’ll have to pick up the cable remote, resulting in an awkward tangle of interfaces and controls. As Sam Schwartz, the chief business development officer at Comcast Cable, puts it, "there is nothing that they can offer that will make it worth it to go through that experience."
Comcast isn't giving up input one without a fight
Of course, Comcast could have worked with Microsoft to enable DVR access, or at least allow something less kludgy than an IR blaster — but why would it? Microsoft’s TV ambitions only work if they can convince you to plug the Xbox into your TV’s input one — and Comcast isn’t giving that up without a fight.
It’s a reminder to anyone making a play for the living room: the cable industry is a tough nut to crack. A full-fledged Apple TV hasn't materialized despite years of rumors, and Google’s half-hearted efforts have largely failed. (The less said about Intel, the better.) To Comcast, the Xbox doesn’t look very different. The company reported $16 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter, driven by 20 million cable subscribers and a fearsome reputation at the negotiating table. As one satellite executive said in the cable industry exposé Captive Audience, "they’ll gouge your eyeballs out."
Comcast is now the largest cable provider, the largest broadband company, and one of the largest TV production-companies in America
It’s easy to see why the source might hold a grudge. In its 50-year history, Comcast has shown a frightening and omnivorous appetite for acquisitions. The company’s beloved founder, Ralph Roberts, was a tycoon in the pre-electronic mode, making his fortune by selling Muzak to department stores and investing early in Sansabelt slacks, using the profits to start buying local cable systems. Ralph's son and the company' current CEO Brian Roberts learned the value of cable channels from serving on Ted Turner’s CNN board, and ever since Comcast has been buying up content companies whenever the opportunity arose, capping off with the massive, FCC-baiting NBC-Universal merger that closed in January of 2011. Comcast is now the largest cable provider, the largest broadband company, and one of the largest TV production-companies in America.
The company often controls nearly every link in the chain
If you're a Comcast customer, the result is that the company often controls nearly every link in the chain, from the camera to your TV screen. NBC–Universal owns production companies like Universal Television, Focus Pictures and Canal+ which create TV shows and movies, along with the networks like NBC, USA, and Bravo broadcasting them. Comcast owns the servers that house them, the wires that distribute them, and the increasingly important software architecture that manages how and when content gets broadcast on demand. It also builds the entire interface, from the on-screen overlay right down to the remote in your hand. It's vertical integration, the same arrangement that made Rockefeller's fortune a century ago.
the same arrangement that made Rockefeller's fortune a century ago
Just like the Rockefeller trusts, Comcast’s vertical stack can look an awful lot like a monopoly. That's a great business proposition, but it's usually bad news for users, as companies can use their business muscle to fend off competitors without actually delivering a superior product. But to hear Comcast tell it, vertical integration actually helps the company move faster. If it wants to chase down a new idea, whether it's on-demand distribution or in-show social media promotion, Comcast has the leverage to pitch it to every link in the chain.
In the case of on demand, that's exactly what Comcast did. Matt Strauss, Comcast’s VP of video services, says it took years of careful testing and politicking to convince the industry that serving video on demand was a leap worth taking, even as outside players like TiVo were forcing the issue with new DVR-recording tech. Comcast needed to develop new tech for dynamic ad insertion, and commission studies to convince advertisers the new spots were worth paying for. It had to convince Nielsen to include on-demand viewers in its ratings so network presidents didn’t see their numbers drop. Comcast needed muscle to make it happen, and thanks to its immense holdings in the industry, it had the power it needed to establish on demand as a standard, and stem the growth of DVR before it upset the industry at large. TiVo ended up playing second fiddle, licensing its tech to the larger players amid dwindling sales numbers. DVRs became standard issue for cable boxes, but the rush of third-party innovation stopped there.
Now that Netflix is offering a simpler UI, so is Comcast
By all indications, Comcast has the Xbox One picked out for a similar fate, as the company tries to incorporate the new challenger’s best features. For years, critics complained about Comcast’s ugly cable boxes, but now that gaming companies are threatening the crown, Comcast is bringing all of its industrial design in-house, hiring talent from Valley darlings like Frog. When I visited Comcast’s headquarters, designers were testing out Cupertino-esque packaging designs and 3D-printing prototype consoles on a shiny new Makerbot. For years, Comcast’s crufty menus made it nearly impossible to navigate all those channels. But now that Netflix is offering a simper UI, so is Comcast. The company has already rolled out Netflix-style poster menus on its X1 boxes in select markets, complete with sub-menus for cast and crew. The new X2 model will have a voice-search feature like the new Kinect — only this one searches through your DVR, cable listings, in-house on demand and third-party streaming rentals all at once. Apple and Microsoft don't have the corporate partnerships to manage that. By all indications, they might never have them.
But on Comcast's side, it's still unclear how fast or how well that innovation will actually arrive. The company is clearly proud of its new X1 interface, but it's only available in 27 of the company's 80-plus markets (the company has promised to serve the other 53 by the end of the year), so it's something most customers still haven't seen. At the same time, for all its TV issues, you can go out and buy an Xbox One tomorrow. People are already lining up for them. If Comcast is going to build the modern media center it wants, it will need more than just corporate dominance. It will need people to get excited, the way they're excited about a new phone or a new console — or competitors like Google Fiber. After 50 years of dominance, Comcast's next challenge is conquering emotion.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures, the venture capital division of Comcast, is an investor in Vox Media, the parent company of The Verge.