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Here Come the TV Apps!

Mari Silbey
10/14/2015
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The video flood gates are about to open.

Following news that Charter Communications Inc. is making its Spectrum TV app available for the Roku platform, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) has now documented its own plans for bringing the Xfinity app to connected devices. First reported by Fierce Cable, Comcast has filed a document with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) outlining its argument for using an apps-based approach to make pay-TV content portable to new retail products. The argument reinforces the case that cable operators made last month in recommendations to the FCC; namely that apps open up the pay-TV market to consumer electronics companies, give consumers more choice and flexibility, and offer content providers a way to share their content more broadly. (See DSTAC: 2 Opposing Views on the Future of TV.)

However, beyond just stating the case for an apps-based approach, the FCC filing also spells out Comcast's immediate plans for developing a new Xfinity app. From the filing:

"While Comcast and other MVPDs have, thus far, focused primarily on developing apps for tablets and smartphones given the popularity of these devices with consumers, Comcast also is developing an HTML5-based app with Encrypted Media Extensions (“EME”), which would enable access to Xfinity service on compatible device platforms without the need for building customized native apps for every device platform. This approach holds particular promise for facilitating delivery of Comcast’s service to Smart TVs, retail set-top boxes, and other TV-connected devices, which currently operate in much more fragmented markets using different operating systems."

Assuming Comcast follows through with its app plans, the move would mark a sharp departure from its previous strategy of focusing more heavily on leased hardware than on porting Xfinity TV service to other retail devices. Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) was a pioneer in enabling TWC apps on third-party equipment, and Charter is catching up with the launch of its Spectrum app on the Roku platform. (See Charter Parks Its App on Roku.)

But Comcast has remained steadfast in its commitment to leased set-tops and gateways, going so far as to create the IP-based Reference Design Kit (RDK), which is now being used as a standardized software stack for video CPE throughout much of the cable industry.


Want to know more about the impact of Web services on the pay-TV sector? Check out our dedicated OTT services content channel here on Light Reading.


On the one hand, Comcast likely sees the writing on the wall. The Internet has radically changed the video market, and there's no longer a good excuse for locking up pay-TV services on an operator-controlled box.

On the other hand, Comcast is still a savvy and strategic player. The company must feel it can make concessions with video more freely now that it has a back-up strategy in place for extending its presence throughout the subscriber home. Set-tops are great for controlling video services, but broadband gateways – like the gigabit gateway that Comcast plans to launch next year – can have an even greater impact going forward, particularly as the industry starts deploying more IoT applications. (See Comcast Readies D3.1 & RDK-B and RDK-B Could Revolutionize Home Network.)

It's also worth noting in Comcast's comments to the FCC that, in addition to taking its own Xfinity app to new devices, the operator plans to use HTML5 with EME to support more third-party apps on its own X1 hardware. Comcast didn't elaborate on what those third-party apps might be, but they will most certainly be carefully curated to support Comcast's long-term business.

Separately from the FCC filing, Comcast also just announced that it's making more short-form web content available on the X1 platform. Noting that the move is an extension of Comcast's strategy behind the launch of its Watchable web video service, the company said it has partnered with more than 30 broadcast and cable networks to bring new short-form content to X1. Initially, most of the new content is centered on clips covering news, sports and other current events. (See Comcast's Watchable: Like YouTube… Sorta.)

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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KBode
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KBode,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/27/2015 | 4:21:17 PM
Re: Positional...
More "evil" perhaps is how Comcast for YEARS refused to enable the simple authentication needed to let services like HBO Go work over the Roku. I still don't think those services work via Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. Less relevent as the standalone HBO Now comes into play, but I still found that to be an obnoxious and under-reported move.
kq4ym
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kq4ym,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/26/2015 | 9:44:32 PM
Re: Positional...
Although I can't quite put my finger on wny, there seems to be something suspiciously "evil" about Comcast trying an app for Roku. It would seem that Roku's business plan might be in jeapardy if Comcast could send it's entire programming through the box. The plan would seem to get Comcast a monopoly on programming and why wouldn't they just make their own version of Rokus boxes to sell to non-cable customers?
KBode
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KBode,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/16/2015 | 11:13:53 AM
Re: Positional...
Fortunately for cable ops Apple hasn't shown the same chops with TV as they have with hardware. They've been very resistant to Apple's ideas of offering its own cable box though, worried that Apple would do to TV what they initially did to music.

I think the app ecosystem works pretty well on devices like Roku and Chromecast though. 

.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/15/2015 | 9:57:40 PM
Re: Positional...
TV Apps sound like an interesting thought experiment, but I'm still skeptical about how effective they will be. 

It still seems like Apple has had a stranglehold over the consumer apps ecosystem. So I keep wondering: Is it going to take Apple to enter into television in a bit way in order for TV Apps to be successful?
KBode
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KBode,
User Rank: Light Sabre
10/14/2015 | 1:26:58 PM
Positional...
I think they're in a nice position right now with the living room still being so cable box dependent, but that power's going to erode pretty quickly once people are able to pick and choose the devices of their choice (assuming Internet video takes further flight and the FCC's set to box reform efforts aren't a complete shit show).

At that point it comes down to wanting to buy content and hardware from a cable company with a history of clunky, horrible GUIs, and hungrier companies like Roku who've actually shown some innovative streaks in the presentation of Internet video data...

Or maybe I'm just somebody with a revolutionary mindset engaged in wishful thinking.
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