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Posted by James McQuivey on December 3, 2009
Today is the big day: when Comcast announces it has taken a controlling share of NBCU in the latest mega media merger. And though the media have been covering it rapaciously for months now, the obligatory reaction stories are now being posted, analyzing something we should really know by now, namely:
This deal isn't about clamping down on runaway digital video content to save cable's collective hide.
If you're not careful, you may run into people who assert the contrary. Rafat Ali of paidcontent.org, whose opinion I generally value, earlier today titled his remarks "Comcast-NBC Deal Isn't About Digital." By which he means it's not about purely digital content (generation or delivery). While that's true, when he then goes on to say that Comcast's digital moves (thePlatform, Fancast) don't have "the potential to change the game for the cable giant," he is 100% wrong.
Because the future of cable is entirely dependent on digital. The future of all media of any sort is dependent on digital. Ergo so is the deal.
Parsing the business, trying to separate digital from traditional delivery in the future will be a pointless exercise because there will be no distinction -- not in how consumers experience it, not in how devices deliver it. Whether it comes over the proprietary cable network, over the open Internet, or over a wireless broadband connection -- the smartest players know that all content will eventually be digital (even if an analog linear experience persists alongside it for many years, which it will) and should therefore act accordingly, starting today. That's what this acquisition is about.
Comcast, with a controlling share of NBCU, is in a position to start experimenting with digital content experiences that it couldn't attempt before. This acquisition will succeed or fail purely on the basis of how quickly Comcast starts that experimentation. Not all of its efforts will work, but the effort must materialize or Comcast will find itself sitting on 51% of a rapidly declining asset. Rather than just henpeck and fret about this possible outcome, I'll put my own neck on the line and offer 3 experiments I want to see Comcast try by year-end 2010:
I already know the key objection to any and all of this: how will consumers pay for it? Borrow a page from the Netflix playbook (6 million monthly streaming viewers can't be wrong) and offer them all for free initially. Then gradually work them into premium tier memberships, maybe even tie them to specific content upgrades like you did with VOD (you want HBO on your Xbox? Obviously you have to be a full HBO subscriber). There will be a way to make money at this -- it's called pleasing customers. People will pay for the happiness that ensues when they watch their favorite content wherever and whenever they want.
Any experiments you'd like to see?