Burke: New Channels Are on the Way

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Fresh off joining Sony Corp. in its acquisition of MGM and months removed from the failed run at Disney, Comcast Corp. president Steve Burke said last week the MSO’s executives “remain committed to the idea that content and distribution work well together, and we continue to do that by starting new cable channels.

“We have a lot of ideas for new channels,” Burke said at a marketing-themed gathering here sponsored by Forrester Research, without spelling those ideas out. In a side deal to the Sony-led group’s agreement to buy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. for $4.9 billion, Comcast and Sony will work on possible new cable channels and the MSO will gain access to Sony and MGM titles for on-demand use.

GETS 'PERSONAL’

For the most part, Burke — asked to speak about the future of television — stayed with Comcast’s oft-stated concept of TV getting more “personalized” and crossing over more with high-speed Internet service and with coming phone service using the Internet platform.

Asked by an audience member how Comcast would meet consumers’ need to watch TV on mobile devices, Burke said TV was still “tethered” to rooms with big screens but Comcast wants to make sure its Internet-based phones will work like a landline handset at home and shift to a cellular phone outside the home. Consumers will want the device to unify their voicemails and e-mails, he said. “How we get there, I think, is yet to be determined. Do we strike deals with a variety of wireless companies? Do we pick one wireless company and enter a more strategic relationship? We’re not sure.”

He also said the personalized-TV enablers — digital video recorders and on-demand systems — won’t compete or cannibalize each other. “We think the marriage of VOD for impulse purchase and [DVRs] for planned purchase makes a very powerful combination.”

Later that day News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin had a snappy rebuttal to Burke’s statements about getting broadcast-network content on video-on-demand servers: Pay us.

CHERNIN: IT’S NOT FREE

Speaking at the same conference, Chernin was asked to react to earlier Burke comments about a broadcast network not wanting to hear Comcast pitches about putting network shows on VOD servers. He replied, in part, “The specific issue with Comcast and video on demand, and what Steve neglected to tell you is, there is a very specific pricing issue.”

Chernin said “the most contentious issue certainly from our point of view and Comcast on video on demand is pricing. Because in their view it’s free.” Comcast wants to offer time-shifted network fare to help drive penetration of digital set-tops, get people to buy more services from Comcast and keep them as customers longer, the Fox Group chairman and CEO said. “Historically, our view is if people are using our content to build businesses we need to be paid for it.” Not paid “outrageously,” he said, but some acceptable price.

News Corp. has refused to let Comcast offer Fox broadcast fare on free VOD, Chernin said, but did provide some free VOD programming on “nascent” cable channels that needed more exposure, namely Speed Channel and National Geographic Channel.

In one of the more amusing exchanges, Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff asked Chernin if he would trade DirecTV Inc. subscribers straight up for equivalent cable customers (News controls DirecTV). “No,” Chernin replied. “First of all, it’s highly unlikely that even if I did feel that way you were going to get me to admit that.”

FAT DVRS COMING

Chernin said he came down on the side of DirecTV’s faster customer growth and said he felt consumers would prefer big storage on DVRs than a multitude of on-demand programming stored at the cable headend.

He said it’s likely DVRs that can store 150 to 200 hours of programming will be available in the next 12 to 18 months.

Both executives were asked about the corrosive effect of DVRs on their ad-sales businesses. Both said the ad-skipping potential of DVRs will force changes to what works or doesn’t work for ads, but neither saw the imminent demise of 30-second commercials, and both said consumers want DVRs so strongly that multichannel TV providers have to offer them.

Chernin said the thinking at News on whether or not to launch DVRs basically was “don’t damage DirecTV for something that’s going to happen to the network business anyway.” Burke talked up the prospects of home-specific targeted ads being a reality in the next three to five years.

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