Comcast wants to blur line between cable and web content

Giant cable provider Comcast will soon let its subscribers access video content via Roku devices and Samsung smart TVs, and it will offer 6,000 hours of programming from the Rio Olympics next month.

comcast logo nyc 30 rock

The NBC and Comcast logos are displayed on top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, formerly known as the GE building, in midtown Manhattan in New York July 1, 2015

Credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Hard-pressed by "cord cutters" who abandon traditional TV for online streaming services, Comcast, the nation's largest pay TV provider, is moving fast to blend its cable offerings with Internet-like content. "We think of them as one business," says Comcast Executive Vice President Chris Satchell.

In April, Comcast announced a partnership with Samsung and Roku to bring the ISP's flagship X1 cable platform to devices made by those manufacturers without separate set-top boxes. Now Comcast is about to launch a subscription-only, Internet-like portal built around the upcoming Rio Olympics. "We're curating the Web's content," Satchell says.

Much of that content will come from NBC, which is owned by Comcast. Approximately 6,000 hours of video and related content from the Olympics will be available to X1 subscribers, and it will all be organized by sport, country, or by athlete. A viewer could, for example, chose to watch the American track and field team, or focus on a particular event after it concludes. Comcast cable subscribers will also be able to view content using NBC's Web app.

Comcast already gave subscribers a taste of such blended content during the Academy Awards, which Satchell called "a dry run for Rio," and during other NASCAR events. However, the programming around the Olympics, which start in just a few weeks, is the companies most ambitious to date. The cable giant will also aggregate content from YouTube and other video providers to make it easier for subscribers to find channels of interest.

Bye bye cable box?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to loosen the grip pay TV providers have on customers via their set-top boxes, dedicated hardware devices that companies such as Comcast force subscribers to rent. The industry opposes Wheeler's proposal, saying it's not technically feasible to allow the use of third-party cable boxes.

Comcast, however, is taking Wheeler's idea one step further by allowing subscribers to access its programming through streaming devices, including Roku and Samsung smart TVs. Of course, subscribers who use those devices will still have to pay for their Comcast subscriptions. (Satchell brushed off the question of why Comcast thinks it's OK for customers to use Rokus or Samsung hardware but not set-top boxes from other providers.)

The move is still a big change, and Satchell says he expects Comcast subscribers to get the option early next year. It's also possible that Comcast will strike similar deals with other hardware vendors, he says, giving subscribers even more choice.

Comcast, along with other pay TV providers, is fighting to keep subscribers from ditching their expensive contracts and switching to streaming video. Cable and satellite TV providers are beginning to offer slimmer, cheaper packages, and the move to blended content is clearly an attempt to hold on to Web-savvy consumers.

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