Why Comcast-NBCU really IS about digital

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:

 

  1. A connected TV widget for Comcast users. Sure, I have a set top box that is supposed to give me easy access to VOD, interactive menus, and DVR controls. But Comcast will prove it understands me as a consumer when it also offers me a connected TV widget that I can log in to that will let me stream some Fancast content right to my TV. I'm not even asking for all of it (yet), just enough to show that you respect the viewer's true desire for Everywhere TV.
  2. A content deal with the Xbox 360 or PS3. Just as there is a Netflix option for me inside of these game consoles, there should be a Comcast option that I can download, sign in to, and then use to watch Fancast content (see a theme here?), select and view VOD movies, and even stream from my DVR to the Xbox.  
  3. An iPhone app. This isn't at the top of my list, because it raises some squirrelly issues and AT&T may pressure Apple to reject a Comcast video app, but I would not be true to the consumer if I did not point out that the only way Comcast will really have access to the mobile screen is through an app. Start with the iPhone and while you wait (and wait) for Apple to decide what to do, call Google up and figure out an Android-based solution that will probably make it to market faster. 

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?

Comments

re: Why Comcast-NBCU really IS about digital

Agree with you, James. Two additional points: NBCU can now point to Philadelphia when asked "How are you planning to monetize that content?" instead of looking internally for the innovation/experimentation. Also, there's a real possibility NBC may stop being a television network soon (as Moonves hinted was in the cards for CBS).