CTAM in NY: Comcast Eyes PlayStation, Wii, Roku And Connected TVs

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Comcast -- which is planning to deliver on-demand content through Microsoft's Xbox 360 around Christmas -- is also aiming to extend VOD to game consoles from Sony and Nintendo, as well as connected TVs and devices like the Roku set-top, Sam Schwartz, president of Comcast Converged Products, said on a panel here Thursday.

"We want to be on screens that consumers want us to be on," Schwartz said.

But Comcast won't try to emulate Netflix, which makes its service available on more than 200 consumer-electronics devices, because of the expense of maintaining all those platforms.

"I don't envy Netflix's maintenance task," Schwartz said. "What people don't realize is, once you port to a platform, you're going to have to live with that device for a long time."

In addition to the three game consoles -- Xbox, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii -- Comcast expects to provide Xfinity On Demand through "a couple of the TV manufacturers," including LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics, and Roku's Internet-connected set-top box, Schwartz said.

Xfinity On Demand on Xbox

At the same time, Schwartz said, it remains to be seen how many consumers gravitate toward other devices to access cable TV programming.

"Nobody knows how much consumers want to go to input B," Schwartz said, referring to the source selection on a TV. "Input A, that's where they spend five, six hours a day."

The Xbox feature will become available to Comcast Xfinity broadband and TV customers in the "Christmas-ish" time frame, Schwartz said. That will provide a "rich navigation experience," he added, providing cover art and the ability to scroll through titles using the game controller, or with Microsoft's Kinect gesture- and voice-recognition attachment by waving your hands in midair or speaking voice commands.

Schwartz also discussed Comcast's Xcalibur project, which provides an advanced user interface and Internet-connected apps including weather, traffic, Pandora and Facebook. The Xcalibur service -- which is now in a 1,000-household trial in Augusta, Ga. -- was demonstrated by Comcast CEO Brian Roberts at the 2011 Cable Show.

"Next year is when we take it across the country," he said.

A key goal of Xcalibur is to improve search and navigation features on TV. "There's almost a Chinese wall between the grid, VOD and DVR," Schwartz said. "This is one, user-centric view of the content."

In the Augusta trial, the traffic and weather apps have been the two most popular. Schwartz noted that more than 50% of people are choosing to set up Facebook accounts through the Xcalibur guide.

The panel, "What's Connecting on Connected TVs?", was moderated by Leslie Ellis, CTAM senior technology advisor and Multichannel News columnist.

On the over-the-top front, Roku's customers have been watching considerably more video, as a consequence of the company adding more content, vice president of marketing Charles Seiber said. Two years ago, Roku users were watching seven hours per week per device; that's now up to about 12.

"In the context of TV watching in America that's a pretty high number," Seiber said. In addition to Netflix, Hulu Plus and Pandora, Roku's 300 content partners now include Epix, Disney.com and Glenn Beck TV.

But Seiber said Roku doesn't represent a threat to Comcast or other pay-TV operators. "The vast majority of our customers are pay-TV subscribers," he said. "We believe that authenticated content will be a valuable addition to our platform."

Schwartz also agreed: There's no cord-cutting happening in a major way today. In fact, Comcast has found that customers who subscribe to Netflix also tend to buy more VOD. "It's just people who like TV, and they want more of it," he said.

With the flailing economy, more consumers are finding cable is providing a better value, Schwartz claimed. "What we're seeing is people are actually spending more time at home," he said. "They're finding it's cheaper to pay for cable than going out to the movies."

Like Roku, LG, which launched its first connected "smart TV" in March 2011, is also looking to stock up on content. The primary reason people are buying new HDTVs is because of form factor -- new models are lighter, smaller and energy efficient, said Kurt Hoppe, LG USA's director of smart TV innovation and alliances.

But the second reason is because the TVs can connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, with user connection rates of "more than 50% and growing," Hoppe said.

Asked what role Roku will serve when all HDTVs have Internet connections, Seiber said that more than two-thirds of Roku customers have devices able to connect to the Internet, such as a game console, Apple TV, Blu-ray player or TV.

"The way we compete is, we are constantly racing to get the best experience and the best content on our platform," he said.

Internet radio service Pandora, which has 37 million active monthly users, is accessible today on about 400 different connected home devices, including TVs, stereos and set-top boxes -- even an Internet-connected refrigerator from Samsung, said Ian Geller, vice president of business development.

Initially, Pandora was skeptical if people would change the inputs on their TV to listen to the service, but Geller said he has been "blown away by how popular Pandora is on all those devices."

"The TV has become more than a video device," he added. "It's the entertainment hub, not just the video hub, in the house."