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Cable Technology Feature Article

May 15, 2014

Comcast Testing New Features for Cable Boxes

By Bob Wallace, Founder, Fast Forward Thinking LLC

Comcast (News - Alert) is investigating bringing advanced search, program guide and Video-on-Demand (VoD) to low-end boxes that are typically provided with entry-level cable packages and for additional TVs in a residence, via software upgrade.

Comcast is currently trialing the process in an undisclosed area and is also tackling the real-world challenge of making those who use these boxes aware that they are eligible for the upgrade so that they will take advantage of the program if it’s launched. It’s unclear how many types of boxes are involved.

Comcast is far from the only pay-TV subscription service provider with feature and functionality-lite boxes in homes, especially for additional TVs. Verizon (News - Alert) has also provided entry-level boxes with its FiOS TV service that lack core capabilities.

Leveraging Expensive Assets

The Comcast undertaking-in-progress is in keeping with several of its ongoing initiatives, such as providing broader access to VoD. Just this week, the cableco signed a deal with Turner Broadcasting (News - Alert) to add the network’s lineup of TV shows to its ever-expanding VoD mega-library.

And after paying $7.75 billion to extend its deal for the rights to the Olympics until 2032 last week, NBC (owned by Comcast), wants the maximum possible audience glued to their TV sets for programming and ads, whether they are connected to a low end box in the living room, an enclosed porch, a sunroom, a child’s room or a sports cave – no exceptions.

Stated simply – It doesn’t pay for Comcast customers to encounter challenges in viewing and re-viewing (VoD), compelling content that it has committed tens of billions of dollars to carry.

Search functionality has also fast forwarded from the alpha-numeric entry from remotes offering that was considered “new” in some HD boxes as late as 2008. Comcast has worked with TiVo (News - Alert), Jinni and others to advance the power of its guides and search and recommendations efforts since then.

The cableco is pulling out all the stops to retain current customers that providers have lost in droves per quarter to video alternatives. Comcast said it added 24,000 new video customers to start 2014, after years of TV subscriber losses.

You Are Eligible

However, the big catch here and overall is that making upgrades available is fine but informing customers that they are eligible for them is often tougher. Consumers see endless TV ads and receive direct mail pieces on the latest and greatest but too often assume it’s not for them and don’t bother to inquire.

Perhaps current customers are just overwhelmed with the sheer volume and breadth of works in progress on so many fronts at Comcast. In addition to the content deals mentioned above, the cableco is hard at work to merge with closest cable rival Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable in a $45 billion deal and is prepping to roll out nationwide usage-based data pricing after trials in progress conclude. Throw in its faster and more reliable access deal with Netflix and overwhelmed seems like an understatement.

That makes the challenge of grabbing subscribers’ attention (in the trial) to let them know they are eligible for a software upgrade to their boxes - that represents a quantum functionality leap forwards - a taller-than-technology task.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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