Comcast last week expanded access to its Fancast Xfinity TV authenticated Web-video service to an estimated 14 million subscribers across the U.S. — the cable industry's biggest attempt to date to preserve its pay model amid the dramatic rise of Internet video.
But the operator is continuing to characterize the service as being in a “beta” phase of testing, as a hedge to let it work out the kinks and let partners continue to experiment with different ad models and windowing.
Fancast Xfinity, which Comcast previously referred to as On Demand Online, currently offers about 2,000 hours of programming from 27 networks. Those include HBO, Cinemax, Starz, TNT, TBS, A&E Network, History, CBS and AMC. Still conspicuously absent from the lineup are Viacom and The Walt Disney Co. properties.
The service is available — for no extra charge — to customers who subscribe to both Comcast video and broadband services. As of the end of September, the MSO had 15.7 million high-speed Internet customers. The company does not break out how many are also cable-TV subscribers, but a source close to the trial put that number of “double-play” subs at about 14 million.
Within the next six months, Comcast expects to expand the service to all 24 million video subscribers. “It's our goal for a customer who buys a package of content from Comcast to access that from any screen, at any time,” Comcast Interactive Media president Amy Banse said. “The expectation is that anything we offer through Xfinity TV will be a free add-on.”
In addition, Comcast is working on a way to let programmers offer content to the MSO's customers via their own sites, but the operator has not disclosed details about how that will work.
“That should be available in the next couple of months,” Banse said.
Allowing programmers to offer authenticated access to premium video through their own branded services was a key provision of the “TV Everywhere” partnership Comcast announced with Time Warner Inc. in June.
Public-interest groups, however, have argued that such TV Everywhere services will thwart the development of competitive online video services by reinforcing the power of incumbent television distributors (see sidebar).
Today, to access Xfinity TV, Comcast subscribers must visit Fancast.com or Comcast.net; enter their online user name and password; and install a software client that includes Move Networks' media player. The service allows a subscriber to authenticate up to three computers. Users can log in to Fancast Xfinity TV over any broadband connection, whereas initially the service had required access via a Comcast cable modem.
As for how the new service lines up with Comcast's pending acquisition of NBC Universal, Banse pointed out that Fancast was an early partner with Hulu and that the new service will build on top of that.
“Hulu is a great site, with a lot of great, mostly broadcast, content,” Banse said. “We see Fancast Xfinity as a site with a lot of great authenticated cable content.”
According to Banse, Comcast customers using the beta version of Fancast Xfinity TV have watched video two to three times longer than users of the regular Fancast site. And, she said, the online viewing has been additive to both digital video recorder use and regular TV viewing.
“One of the reasons we're asking you to use a Comcast client is that we're expecting to introduce additional cross-platform features which will allow you to manage your DVR better, to tune your TV from the site and to create VOD watch lists,” she said.
Comcast also plans to add access to Xfinity from mobile devices in 2010. “It's on our road map for next year. One step at a time,” Banse said.
Comcast launched the online-video service trial in June with 5,000 customers and expanded that to include several thousand more in the following months, Banse said. Fancast Xfinity TV represents almost a year's worth of work by teams across Comcast, she added.
The subscriber-only content will be in addition to the 12,000 TV shows and movies already on Fancast, which are available for free to anyone. The ultimate goal with Xfinity TV is to offer as much — or more — content on demand online as Comcast does on cable VOD, said Comcast senior vice president of new media Matt Strauss. He said some programmers, including HBO, are offering more content through Xfinity than they do with traditional VOD.
“The promise of Xfinity is that this is more content,” Strauss said. “It's content that has never been available online before.”
Strauss, addressing the issue of how ratings will be counted with Fancast Xfinity TV, said some programmers like TNT and TBS are experimenting with the full ad load carried over from broadcast. He said Comcast has been working with Nielsen “toward a path of counting it as part of the Nielsen C3 ratings.”
“There's not a hard and fast rule” about how advertising will work with the authenticated service, he said. “I think there is a desire by some programmers to have [Nielsen ratings] extended online.”
Banse said Comcast will add adult content to the Xfinity TV service, including programming from Cinemax, once it has implemented parental controls for the site sometime around the end of January or the middle of February.
Comcast originally filed for trademark protection on Xfinity in December 2008. The name is an allusion to Comcast's Project Infinity initiative — which aims to eventually offer more than 100,000 video-on-demand titles to cable customers — as well as a play on “affinity.”
Snapshot of Comcast's expanded beta version of Fancast Xfinity TV
Amount of content: 2,000 hours, including 900 movies
Participating networks: 27, including HBO, Cinemax, Starz, TNT, TBS, A&E Network, History, CBS, AMC, BBC America, E!, Style, G4, Hallmark Channel, Ovation, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, Travel Channel
Eligible customers: About 14 million subscribers to both cable and broadband; Comcast expects to open access to video-only subs by mid-2010