The vision Comcast has for the future of TV isn’t locked up somewhere inside its brand-new, glass-encased headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. The rough cut of the cable company’s ideas are already playing out on the Internet, at Fancast.com.
Fancast, launched in January after two years of development, is supposed to be the first step toward totally personalized television. It’s TV that knows precisely what you want to watch and instantly serves it up anywhere at any time.
At first glance, Fancast looks like an attempt to compete with other online video aggregation sites — think MSN or Yahoo Video. That’s because Fancast hosts a buffet of more than 4,000 full episodes of shows and movies, from NBC, Fox, Viacom, CBS, FX, Warner Bros., Bravo, Sci Fi Channel, AMC and others, many provided through a deal with Hulu, owned by NBC Universal and News Corp.
But Comcast Interactive Media, which the operator formed in December 2005 to establish new online ventures, hopes to evolve Fancast into the last program guide a viewer would ever need.
Fancast is built to navigate a universe of TV and movie content to find that special show no matter where it lives: online, on a cable network or broadcast TV station, on video-on-demand, on a mobile phone, or even in movie theaters. This single comprehensive, intelligent source will let you discover and manage content choices, and share them with your buddies.
Comcast Interactive Media president Amy Banse expects Fancast to be the means through which you program your DVR, arrange your video-on-demand selections, watch past episodes of TV shows on an office computer, or read reviews of various programming.
“If you’re a Comcast customer and you buy a package of content from us, you should be able to consume and manage that content across screens,” she said. “We very much believe that the Internet and the PC should be a tool to manage and consume that content.”
Internet-only players like Google aren’t in the same position to tackle the multiscreen phenomenon, in part because they lack the wire to the home. And so far, Comcast is ahead of other cable and video distributors in settling this new frontier between the Internet and the TV.
Fancast, then, is the test case for the hypothesis behind the formation of Comcast Interactive Media: that the operator can extend its position as the country’s leading pay TV and residential broadband provider with a powerful Internet-content brand rivaling Google.
After two years and spending what is estimated to be more than $600 million for various Internet properties, Comcast Interactive Media — called CIM (“simm”) internally — has swelled to about 540 employees. Banse and her lieutenant, Sam Schwartz — CIM’s executive vice president of strategy and development, as well as president of Comcast Interactive Capital — have built a good portion of the division through acquisitions.
Those include thePlatform, a Seattle-based provider of video-management services which has more than 100 customers, for which Comcast reportedly paid between $80 million and $100 million in 2006. Another is movie-ticketing site Fandango, for which the MSO is said to have spent in the neighborhood of $200 million last year. Fandango, based in Los Angeles, sells tickets for more than 15,000 screens across the U.S. and has since been linked into Fancast.
And earlier this month, CIM picked up DailyCandy, a 55-person Web content publisher with 2.5 million subscribers to its fashion- and lifestyle-oriented newsletters, for what was widely reported to be about $125 million. The idea behind that deal was to acquire an audience of loyal and avid Internet consumers, and find ways to migrate them to the Fancast and Fandango sites as well.
“One of the luxuries we have as part of Comcast is the scale to pursue our huge ambitions for CIM,” Schwartz said.
A top goal for the unit is to establish standalone businesses that generate sizable sales, besides serving the traditional goal of enhancing the traditional TV and broadband services. CIM already does the latter with video and other content on Comcast.net, which has 15 million unique monthly visitors.
“We want to capture a share of what everybody believes will be an increasingly ad-supported revenue stream online,” Banse said.
Comcast’s ambitions reach farther than just catering to consumers — it wants to also serve other operators and video sites. In July, thePlatform announced a deal with Time Warner Cable to power the video player on RoadRunner.com. In addition, thePlatform provides services for broadband portals operated by Comcast, Cox Communications and Cablevision Systems — giving it four of the top five MSOs — as well as Hulu, BBC, CNBC, PBS, Verizon Wireless and others.
“We’re providing the ecosystem to have a low-friction way of moving from the content owners and the distributors,” said thePlatform CEO Ian Blaine.
For now, CIM represents a fraction of Comcast’s business. The company reports CIM’s revenues as part of the “corporate and other” category, which includes the Comcast Spectacor arena and sports group. For the second quarter of 2008, that segment generated $87 million, or 1% of the company’s overall revenues.
But as the biggest traditional video distributor in the country, with 24.6 million cable video subscribers as of the end of June, Comcast wants to gain a foothold now in the online video-entertainment space before Google or someone else establishes an insurmountable lead.
According to some analysts, Comcast is staking out ground that all video distributors will need to claim for their survival. “Not only is it the right strategy, it’s the essential strategy,” said Will Richmond, president of consulting firm Broadband Directions. “Consumers are showing companies what needs to be done by shifting their consumption away from linear video … Any company that doesn’t give customers what they’re looking for is going to be disadvantaged.”
Cable operators have had broadband portals for years, which would seem to have been logical places to establish a beachhead in online video, Richmond noted. Now, however, those sites are being eclipsed by Google’s YouTube, Veoh Networks, Metacafe and countless others.
In that sense, Fancast, and the rest of CIM’s properties, may be viewed as a hedge against a future in which the Internet is the predominant distribution mechanism for video.
Cable operators “are worried that if they give you online video, you’ll drop your premium cable subscription,” Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said. “They’re right in that fear, by the way. But only Comcast seems to have the money and the commitment to getting there first rather than watching someone else come in and walk away with their business.”
Comcast urgently wants to make Fancast a world-class Web contender.
Last month, Banse recruited Karin Gilford, who built up Yahoo’s entertainment properties in her eight years there, to run Fancast and other online properties. Gilford has a “proven track record of developing and growing multiple online entertainment businesses,” Banse said in announcing her hiring.
A central idea behind Fancast, Banse explained, is to deliver a “windowless” experience for video viewers, meaning they don’t have to worry about the time restrictions associated with content.
If a show or movie isn’t available free online, the site tries to find it somewhere else, whether that’s on a linear cable network, Comcast video-on-demand, in a movie theater, or on DVD. Or even on the linear services from DirecTV, Verizon’s FiOS TV, or any other provider you specify.
“We’re not there yet,” Banse said. “But by stitching the windows together in that fashion, we believe that consumers will get an on-demand experience when they want it, where they want it.”
Fancast also offers a myriad of ways to find stuff you might like, including a “Six Degrees” feature that shows related actors, directors and titles — pulled from a database of some 80,000 movies and 50,000 TV shows — and providing recommendations based on your ratings.
One of the next steps for Fancast will be programming Internet video for living-room TV sets, letting Comcast subscribers find it and play it back in a simple, seamless fashion.
“What you’ll see over the next 12 months is, if what you’re looking for is online but you want to watch it on your living room TV, we’ll be able to say, 'Here’s how you get it from the Internet to the television,’ ” Banse said.
With this particular feature, Comcast isn’t alone. Time Warner Cable is plotting a similar Internet-to-TV service, and Verizon is testing a service for FiOS TV that will deliver Internet video from sites including YouTube, Veoh Networks, Blip.tv and Break.com to customers’ television sets. Consumer-electronics manufacturers like TiVo, Sony Electronics and Apple are already slinging Web clips to living-room sets.
The trick will be to stitch it all together in a way that’s useful and interesting. “We think consumers really are going to respond to what we can offer,” Banse said.
Comcast won’t divulge viewer metrics for Fancast.com, but early estimates put it at around 2 million unique monthly visitors.
As it grows, the site will increasingly compete for eyeballs with Comcast’s traditional programming suppliers, which for now are drawing bigger crowds than the nascent Fancast. In May News Corp.’s Fox Interactive Media division — which includes MySpace — had 60.8 million unique video viewers, while Time Warner sites (excluding AOL) collectively had 24.6 million, according to Internet measurement firm ComScore.
In Banse’s view, Comcast remains a powerful partner on any platform: “We have 30-year relationships with these content guys. It’s a synergistic relationship with them. There’s no reason why that relationship shouldn’t extend online.”
Cable-network executives agree that ventures like Fancast ultimately should fuel viewing of traditional TV programs. “Fancast reinforces linear, by helping people find new and complementary content,” said MTV Networks senior vice president of partner marketing Juliette Morris. What’s more, Morris noted, as Fancast grows into a serious revenue generator, MTVN shares in that bigger slice of online ad revenue.
David Preschlack, executive vice president of Disney & ESPN Networks affiliate sales, similarly believes broadband outlets can augment viewership rather than cannibalize it. For example, the programmer offers ESPN360, an online-only service with live sports events, to cable and telco operators.
“I think it’s nothing but good news for us to figure out ways of working with Comcast — and other distributors — to extend to as many platforms and as many devices as possible,” he said.
Banse was negotiating with programmers before she was tapped to run CIM. As executive vice president of content development, she previously oversaw Comcast’s investments in and development of cable networks, including E! and PBS Kids Sprout. A lawyer by training, Banse joined Comcast in 1991.
Comcast and other MSOs may have an inherent advantage in negotiating online content-distribution terms over startups, with their broad existing relationships with programmers and advertisers.
Cable companies “can bring scale and distribution,” said Steve Mitgang, CEO of video-aggregation site Veoh. “They can experiment. And they can come in later, and buy and integrate if they need to take advantage of a market trend.”
To Banse, though, time is precious. If Comcast and other cable operators don’t act now to redefine — and reaffirm — their roles on the Internet, they risk interlopers coming in and aggregating the same content.
“Tying the screens together” — the Web, the TV and mobile devices — “takes time,” she said. “So we actually look at it from the perspective that we don’t have a moment to lose.”