Why Comcast Is Letting Other Cable Companies Use Its X1 Platform

Image courtesy of Matthew Keys

The modern media landscape is a little tricky. Viewers are watching more video than ever, but they’re also watching less TV. In fact, the meaning of “TV” itself, as well as “cable,” is changing constantly. But remarks from a Comcast Cable executive at a conference on Thursday show that the nation’s largest cable company is ready to make money off of you no matter what the future holds.

The event, hosted by Wells Fargo, is tailored to investors and other “money” people. And when a corporation is talking to the money people, you hear the same things about what it’s doing as when it talks to customers… but you get a slightly different framing on the why.

The speaker today was executive Matthew Strauss, who is in charge of “video and entertainment services” for Comcast Cable. He spent about 45 minutes responding to a short series of questions from a moderator.

Most of the questions he addressed, and the answers he gave, were about competition, internet TV, and the X1 platform — Comcast’s fancy-pants cloud-based cable box.

That platform is actually where internet and TV meet, for Comcast, so it’s not surprising that the company would be so focused on it.

Strauss began with what at this point has become the conventional wisdom: that this is a “golden age of TV,” and that viewers have become voracious “content carnivores” who are basically watching everything, everywhere, always.

But those viewers, Strauss stressed, “default to the best screen that is available to them,” and that is still, usually (for now), the television.

So Comcast has to “cater to that first… but you can’t be in the video business unless your product is multi-platform. It’s expected.”

“TV is just a piece of glass,” Strauss said. “Anything that can render video securely is a TV.”

“We authenticate over 20 devices today,” Strauss said, referring to various ways outside of your traditional TV that you can login to access the video content that you’ve paid Comcast for, whether it’s Comcast itself, or streaming services from HBO and others.

“Securely” and its cousin, “authenticated,” are the key for Comcast. They want content providers who are worried about piracy to keep paying them, and they want customers paying them too.

Those also tie in to part of why Comcast has been the fastest and most ardent voice objecting to the FCC’s now-shelved set-top box alternative proposal: the X1 is already most of the way there, and for all the times Strauss called cable a “competitive landscape,” Comcast probably wants to stave off competition as much as possible. Making all content available on everyone’s hardware would interfere with the X1 in a big way.

The facilitator also asked about Netflix and other over-the-top programming. “Netflix is a piece to a much larger vision that we have, and it’s a vision that you can actually trace back almost 7 or 8 years,” Strauss said.

“It really comes down to being the aggregator of aggregators: you want to have all the choices on your platform to make it easy and simple for the customer to access it.”

The market, Strauss said (accurately), “has fragmentation — you’re expecting somebody to understand why certain shows are available on certain networks, or why you have to change inputs.” So if Comcast can “just snap it together for somebody – give them the ability to easily see every episode from every season in one place,” well then, isn’t that a win for everyone, especially Comcast?

“Externally,” Strauss continued, referring to people who don’t work in the industry, “people see Netflix as a competitor to pay-tv.” But actually “it’s complimentary to pay-TV. Plus we now have the technical capabilities with X1 to offer internet-delivered services … the collaboration so far has been fantastic.”

What cable consumers may not know — because they only have the option of one cable carrier in their area — is that Comcast actually licenses the X1 platform out to other cable providers. For instance, Cox Communications uses it in their entire footprint. This sort of resource sharing gives lie to the oft-repeated idea (at least by the cable industry) that there is strong “competition” among landline cable companies.

Why is Comcast so happy to license out their tech to other providers?

“It’s less of a material financial driver to do syndication of X1,” Strauss said, “but there are benefits along with it. It gives us more scale, allows us to do more R&D, provides more exposure to X1 outside of our footprint, and opens the door to more opportunities, whether it’s advertising, data, electronic sell-through,” he said.

“We could light that up as part of X1 for some of these partners so I think there’s a lot of up-side there … we’re very open, to making it available to more distributors.”

In short: if Comcast owns the set-top boxes that everyone uses, they can make money from other cable companies’ user data, and sell advertising to viewers on other cable companies as well. Far from being able to reach just their own 20-25 million viewers, they’d be able to reach millions more — without one single merger or regulatory review.

Comcast (which owns a 30% stake in Hulu) also isn’t ruling out the possibility of pulling a full Dish/DirecTV and creating its own internet-delivered streaming service.

“If it turns out that is an opportunity for us, OTT, there’s nothing to preclude us from doing that,” Strauss said. “It all comes down to priority” and what creates the best returns for investors.

But one thing’s for sure: bringing Netflix on board as just another premium channel is cheaper for Comcast than traditional programming costs for content. Those have been on the rise. “When you look past 2017 and 2018,” Strauss said, “I do think we’ll see a stabilization back to more of the historical levels.”

So “being more sophisticated at how we look at programming” — i.e., re-evaluating carriage deals and looking to lower-cost, non-traditional options — is the wave of Comcast’s future.