Video services

Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks

Comcast Corp. published some nice, round numbers Thursday about video-on-demand usage, noting that it's pulling in about 400 million total views per month and is on track to exceed 30 billion views since it launched VoD in 2003. Looking at the more recent trends, Comcast subscribers are watching more than 80 million hours per month in TV shows alone, company SVP of Digital and Emerging Platforms Matt Strauss noted in this blog post. The company also confirmed that, when movies and other types of content are factored in, Comcast pumped out 2.4 billion hours of VoD in 2012, up from 2.1 billion in 2011. The good news is that usage is heading in the right direction: it's increasing. The not-so-good news? Those numbers could be rising much faster, given the size of Comcast's digital TV base (21.25 million) and VoD vault (36,000-plus "choices"). One historic limitation has been the user interface. The vast majority of Comcast's set-tops use text-intensive interactive program guides that are a chore to use, especially when trying to navigate through thousands of VoD choices. If you don't know what you're looking for when you're heading into this video vastness, it can quickly become an exasperating hunting expedition. The new Xfinity TV tablet apps, which link into Comcast's VoD system, offer a step in the right direction, especially when it comes to presentation and search and discovery. But I imagine most customers still rely on the traditional set-top-based IPG and remote control. Old habits and all. Comcast's IP-capable, cloud-based X1 user interface, and, soon, the more personalized X2 version, use HD graphics, fancy jacket art and a more intuitive way to navigate the service, such as it's doing now on tablets and smartphones. A Comcast spokesman says the company is in fact seeing an increase in VoD usage on the X1 platform versus the legacy set-tops/UIs, but wouldn't say by how much. (See Comcast's 'X2' to Get Personal With the TV.) But the upside of X1 in this respect is limited. Comcast has not rolled it out nationally yet and is targeting it primarily to new triple-play customers at this point. We don't yet know how many customers are even using it yet, but it's likely a small fraction of the customer base. So that still leaves most of its 21.25 million digital TV subscribers on the old, more limited interfaces. One way to solve that is to work with companies such as ActiveVideo Networks Inc. and SeaChange International Inc., which have developed technology that can bring Web-like UIs to those crusty QAM-locked boxes. In fact, Comcast is running some tests with ActiveVideo in Chattanooga, Tenn. (See ActiveVideo Breaks In at Comcast .)
SeaChange's NitroNow brings a fancier VoD UI to cable's QAM world.
While Comcast is getting set to launch a "Watchathon" promo later this month to help it boost VoD usage (with an emphasis on ad-supported TV shows), I think it will have to take some additional steps if it's to move the needle on a longer-term basis. (See Comcast Plans to Pump Up VoD Usage.) One way to do that is to teach all of those old boxes some new tricks. If dynamic ad insertion for VoD is indeed ready for prime time to help pay the freight on "free," then a demonstrable increase in usage would seemingly justify the investment required to bring millions of those old boxes up to snuff. — Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable
Jeff Baumgartner 3/13/2013 | 1:56:30 PM
re: Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks Right on cue, we've got a report indicating that-á36% of smartphone owners and 35% of tablet owners search for product/service information on those-ádeviceswhile watching TV. Over one-third regularly use apps to search for show-related information or check listings while in front of the TV, according to the study. So maybe I did not give those apps enough credit. JB
Jeff Baumgartner 3/11/2013 | 1:38:37 PM
re: Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks One obvious distinction is that Netflix is on-demand only, so anytime a user is engaged with the service it's for a VoD stream.-á Cable TV users, meanwhile, use it for linear and on-demand. But the point is that cable VoD usage could be even better if it figured out a way to give those old UIs a facelift. JB
Jeff Baumgartner 3/9/2013 | 4:42:58 PM
re: Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks @yschreiber puts it in a bit more context on Twitter, noting that Netfix is doing something on the order of 1B hours/month. Some obvious differences between the services, but it's a good point and gives a sense of where the bar on usage is set. JB-á-á
Jeff Baumgartner 3/8/2013 | 9:45:32 PM
re: Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks Exactly why they need to figure out a way to get an X1-ish experience to those older boxes.-á They just added a "Queue" app on the-áqam boxes -áthat helps you keep track of TV series without having to hunt it down... helpful, but there's more they could do to spruce up the functionality and look & feel of-áwhat's offered on -áthose older boxes.-á JB
craigleddy 3/8/2013 | 8:25:38 PM
re: Time To Teach Old STBs Some New Tricks The UI and program guide are vitally important and cable's got to do a better job. I was just in a Comcast market and couldn't believe how bad the legacy guide was -- ugly, clunky, slow and confusing. They can't roll out the X1 guide quickly enough.-á
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