There’s been a lot written in the past few days about Comcast’s reported plan to introduce a new platform called “Watchable,” that will curate short-form online video content from various providers for viewing on its X1 set-top boxes and eventually on mobile devices. The initiative is seen as helping Comcast increase its appeal to millennial viewers and drive additional online video advertising revenue.
On the one hand, I applaud the company’s desire to dive more deeply into online video, which has many synergies with Comcast’s broadband and TV businesses. Without knowing any of the details, the biggest issue to me with Watchable is that it’s hard to understand why Comcast would prioritize it as a current initiative when a far more significant opportunity would be integrating popular OTT services into X1, which would have huge subscriber acquisition and retention benefits.
Almost a year ago I laid out the case for why the timing was perfect for Comcast to integrate Netflix into its X1 set-tops. Thinking more broadly, Comcast should be integrating the other “big 3” of online video (YouTube, Hulu and Amazon) to start with as well.
While there are risks for pay-TV operators in integrating OTT services, the landscape has changed significantly over the past year, making OTT more of an imperative. In Q3 ’14 Nielsen data first showed a drop in linear TV ratings which has accelerated right through last month. As a result, TV networks’ ad revenues have fallen, causing anemic Q2 earnings for public media companies and big recent stock price declines. Topping it off, pay-TV just lost more subscribers than ever in Q2, ranging from 470K to 625K, depending on which numbers you use.
Meanwhile, in the past 4 quarters Netflix alone has added another 6 million subscribers in the U.S. It will create 475 hours of original programming this year, up from virtually nothing 2 years ago. Hulu and Amazon are also aggressively ramping their originals, and YouTube is pouring resources into its top creators. All of this is giving viewers more quality choices than ever, further fragmenting audiences.
Fortunately for Comcast, it presciently invested in developing and rolling out the X1 set-top box, which can run IP apps alongside tradition QAM-based linear TV. As I showed with the NBC’s “Live Extra” app during the 2014 Winter Olympics, X1 delivers a super-slick web-like experience.
The problem is that the app section in X1 is little changed since I got it 3 years ago, including mainly unbranded utility apps like weather, traffic, horoscopes, voicemail plus access to Pandora and Facebook. The only enticing new thing is a free beta of “Xfinity Games” which is powered by EA.
Comcast should be taking a page from what TiVo has been doing for a while, and fully integrate access to the big OTT services, at a minimum. X1 users could then search across linear, VOD, DVR and OTT sources for a particular program or movie, with one box and one remote control. No more siloed searches or switching inputs to access Roku or Apple TV. Comcast could also guarantee high-quality streams to OTT providers using its own network.
Imagine the marketing mileage Comcast could get out of these integrations. The better user experience would surely help retain existing Comcast subscribers and entice them to upgrade to X1 (which costs $10/month for non-DVR version and $20/month for DVR, resulting in very high margin rental revenue). OTT integration would also be a huge benefit to promote in Comcast’s competitive advertising vs. telco and satellite, surely helping it win over new subscribers, particularly millennials who are heavy users of OTT services.
Comcast could also collect commissions from OTT services for every new subscriber they helped create. OTT deals would also provide new negotiating leverage with existing TV networks that are always seeking to increase their fees. They would help re-position Comcast away from being a “cable operator” to a provider of all video sources. It would create a good runway to further OTT integrations with BuzzFeed and Vox (in which Comcast has invested a combined $400 million), plus many others.
When I stack up these benefits against the potential upside of offering a set of curated online videos that are already available elsewhere (where things like personalization, navigation and social sharing are superior), it’s a no-brainer to me that Comcast should be prioritizing OTT integrations over something like Watchable. OTT providers have strong, well-respected brands, huge footprints and deep financial resources. Comcast and other pay-TV operators would benefit from partnering with them rather than ignoring them as they’ve been doing.