Tuesday, January 10, 2012, 6:36 PM ET|Posted by Will RichmondComcast has unveiled AnyPlay which allows subscribers to stream linear TV channels to their iPads and soon Motorola Xoom tablets. AnyPlay is initially available in Denver and Nashville, with other markets to follow. AnyPlay follows similar initiatives from Cablevision and Time Warner Cable last year, which immediately landed those operators in hot water with a number of cable TV networks. At issue was whether the appropriate rights were in place to offer tablet streaming, even within the home.
Meanwhile Comcast laid low last year, only making on-demand programming available through its Xfinity TV iPad app. It was inevitable that Comcast would also launch linear viewing on the iPad, but I've wondered for a while how it would avoid similar rights challenges. Now it seems the workaround is the "AnyPlay device," a box which connects to the subscriber's wireless home network.
As far as I can tell, the AnyPlay device serves no real technical purpose at this point - clearly the other operators have shown additional hardware isn't necessary to stream linear channels to tablets. So its main purpose appears to be providing Comcast air cover that it is in compliance with its legacy programming agreements. There must be something in those agreements stipulating that programming be delivered to a set-top box, and the AnyPlay device is designed to qualify as one (the fact that the device can only stream to one tablet at a time, like a traditional set-top feeding just one TV certainly helps as a qualifier).
Looked at another way, the AnyPlay device is a little bit like an in-home only Slingbox, and since programmers haven't clamped down on Slingbox, the AnyPlay device looks safe. And to be fair, the AnyPlay device may serve a longer-term purpose of providing differentiated online-only programming to certain subscribers. For now though it reflects Comcast's justifiable caution in the midst of tense industry relationships between operators and networks as they seek common ground over how multi-device delivery will work.
Coincidentally, the AnyPlay device's introduction comes just a week after the big, ten-year multi-platform renewal deal between Comcast and Disney. That deal's announcement had a "Kumbaya" sense of industry collaboration. Eventually such industry togetherness may materialize, but even the biggest operators like Comcast can't wait for all programmers to fall in line. To outsiders the AnyPlay device may seem a bit silly, but it may well become the norm for other operators as they seek to broaden their distribution strategies to include multiple devices.