Comcast chief Roberts on pay-TV's future, technology and Netflix

By Jim O'Neill on Sep 20 2016 at 12:45 PM
Comcast chief Roberts on the future, technology and Netflix

Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings may not be BFFs, but the two have a shared vision, Roberts said during the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Broker Conference Call Tuesday, and it revolves around the consumer, a concept that hasn’t always seemed to be in the cable operator’s top of mind.

“Reed Hastings and myself spent some time together,” Roberts said. “We occasionally didn’t see eye to eye on everything. (But) we found a way to just really think for the consumer. And I give him a lot of credit for helping make it happen.”

Roberts went on to say that the new relationship between the two companies, Netflix will be available to Comcast subscribers on their set-top box, also helped Comcast reach the decision that it would “aggregate other people’s content, some of which we sell directly and some that we don’t.”

“And we have got to be the best for our customer as possible,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about how to make this (happen), put the consumer in charge. And frankly working through this, the two companies have gotten a lot closer, and I am really pleased with the relationship and proud that we are going to make all this content right there, easy for our customers and NBC, DreamWorks.

And, he said, in addition to selling Netflix a lot of content, it also will be selling Netflix subscriptions to subscribers.

“I think it’s a big day and I am proud and pleased that we are getting there... (soon) you won’t have to do anything, it will just show up to every one of our X1 customers and just go into that Netflix icon and log in once and you are good to go,” he said.

Roberts also told the conference that he saw Comcast as an “innovation company and technology company” now more than ever before, another part of the business that was impacting consumers.

Comcast would use its new technology to bring “those moments in your life that matter the most.”

Still, the market is in a state of flux, he said, with more streaming options adding to the chaos.

“We know the marketplace is changing, no one’s pretending otherwise,” he said.

It already has 10 million voice controllers out for use with its new Xfinity set-top box and is rushing more into the field each week, he said, something he believes will change the way we search and watch television. The new interface allows users to search across Comcast content and Netflix seamlessly, he said, and also allows switching back and forth between pay-TV content and SVOD. “This is something we have worked out with Netflix, very great for consumers, they are in control, they want to search the Netflix catalog one way, come over to X1, search it, integrated with our other content, you are in control,” he said.

To make it work, the metadata from both companies is combined with Comcast’s recommendation engine team in the X1.

Roberts said that, at the moment, Comcast is working only with Netflix because “it’s arguably the most important to get right.” But, he said, Comcast is open to talking with other SVOD players, too.

As for skinny bundles, Roberts was less enthusiastic.

“I don’t know that that’s really what people want,” he said. “There are certainly some who want to pay less,” adding that he hasn’t come across many programmers who are saying, “I want to go a la carte and it works for my business.”

“But we are experimenting,” he acknowledged. “We view the skinny bundles as a way to attract customers who otherwise aren’t probably in the ecosystem.”

Roberts also shared Comcast’s newest cable box, the wireless Xi5 that doesn’t need to be connected to a cable.

“All you do is plug it into the power and connect it to your TV,” he said. The box is all Wi-Fi based, the “future of how we are making cable boxes.”

Comcast has been busily deploying Wi-Fi hotspots, some 15 million to this point, getting it ready to move more aggressively into the wireless space, something it expects to make Comcast more sticky to the consumer and, as a result, less easy to churn.

Stay tuned.                                                                                                      

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