Comcast Keeps 'Beta' Tag On Online TV Service

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Comcast has expanded access to its Fancast Xfinity TV authenticated Web video service to an estimated 14 million subscribers across the U.S. -- but it's continuing to characterize the service as in a "beta" phase of testing as a hedge to allow the company to work out the kinks and let partners to continue to experiment with different ad models and windowing.

Fancast Xfinity, which Comcast previously referred to as On Demand Online, is currently offering about 2,000 hours of programming from 27 networks. Those include HBO, Cinemax, Starz, TNT, TBS, A&E, History, CBS, AMC, BBC America, E, Style, G4, Hallmark Channel, Ovation, Travel Channel, Discovery, Univision and Travel Channel.

"It's important to remember that this is still a beta [service]," Comcast Interactive Media president Amy Banse said in a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. "We are ready and willing and able to troubleshoot [problems]... we think it's a good experience and we think it's only going to get better over time."

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 subs but according to a source close to the trial that number of "double-play" subs is approximately 14 million.

Banse said that 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," she 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. A key provision of the partnership Comcast announced with Time Warner Inc. in June on "TV Everywhere" the plan was to allow programmers to offer authenticated access to premium video through their own branded services.

Today, in order to access Xfinity TV, a subscriber 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 through a Comcast cable modem.

As for how the new service lines up with Comcast's pending acquisition 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."

Xfinity beta screen

According to Banse, Comcast customers using the beta version of Fancast Xfinity TV have watched video up to three times longer than the users regular Fancast site. And, she said, the online viewing has been additive to both DVR 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 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. She added that Fancast Xfinity TV represents almost a year's worth of work by teams across Comcast.

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 expanded Xfinity content lineup includes about 900 movies from HBO, Cinemax and Starz, including Slumdog Millionaire, The Mummy, Juno, Milk and Wall-E; a customer must subscribe to those premium services to be able to access their respective offerings online.

The ultimate goal with Xfinity TV is to offer as much - or more - content on demand online as Comcast does on cable VOD, said Matt Strauss, Comcast's senior vice president of new media. He said some programmers, including HBO, are offering more content through Xfinity than they do with traditional VOD. Some of the content from HBO available in the Internet service, for example, includes the comedy special Robin Williams: Weapons of Self-Destruction; the last two seasons of Big Love; Entourage; Curb Your Enthusiasm; and all 86 episodes of The Sopranos.

"The promise of Xfinity is that this is more content," Strauss said. "It's content that has never been available online before."

Comcast plans to add access to Xfinity from mobile devices in 2010. "It's on our road map for next year. One step as a time," Banse said.

Some analysts believe that a lack of consistent viewership data will be a stumbling block for TV Everywhere services like Comcast's Xfinity, as least with regard to cable networks that rely in part on advertising revenue. Nielsen does not currently incorporate online viewing into its TV ratings, but it has accelerated its timetable on this front and expects to provide a unified TV and Internet video viewing measure by August 2010.

"Cable networks are justifiably concerned that any viewership that potentially shifts from on-air to online that they are not credited for will adversely impact their ratings and therefore their advertising revenue," industry consultant and VideoNuze editor Will Richmond wrote in a blog post last week. "Until the issue is fixed cable networks will be reluctant to offer their most popular programs to TV Everywhere providers, in turn diluting TV Everywhere's appeal to consumers."

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."

The Xfinity TV service already has some HD content, and Strauss noted that one of the technical choices Comcast made early on was to go with Move Networks' adaptive-bit-rate media player to provide the highest possible quality available given a subscriber's bandwidth and device limitations.

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." Comcast has registered several sites that incorporate the name, including Xfinity.com, ComcastXfinity.com and FancastXfinityTV.com.

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