Q&A: Comcast’s Diana Wechsler Kerekes

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As part of an ambitious plan to expand its VOD and high-definition TV offerings, Comcast announced earlier this year that it would offer subscribers 1,000 programming choices in high def by the end of 2008. Diana Wechsler Kerekes, vice president of video content at the MSO spoke with HD Update at the Cable Show about the operator’s HD strategies and how it reached the 500 HD-programming-choices mark. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What are your plans for expanding Comcast’s offerings in high def?

A: It has been and will continue to be all about choice. We recently announced that we hit 500 HD choices. [Comcast chairman and CEO] Brian Roberts announced at CES that we would have 1,000 choices by the end of the year and that is what we are working towards.

Q: Any particular areas of HD content that you are focusing on?

A: We really try to program on demand so there is truly something for everyone, with movies, premium shows, kids, music videos etc. And that correlates to the HD side as well. We want to have a real breadth of content in HD.

Q: What is the breakdown of between transactional, premium and free VOD in HD?

A: Over 70% [of the overall VOD content] is available at no additional charge.

In terms of HD, movies -- transactional, free, or premium movies -- make up about 40% of the HD content. The pay movies are a small part, less than a third, so the majority is free or at no additional charge with the premium channels.

Q: So it mirrors what you have on the standard-def side?

A: Absolutely. The focus again is to make sure there is something for everyone. Over 70% is at no additional charge.

Q: To put this in context, how large is the overall
VOD
offering?

A: We offer well over 10,000 choices over the course of the month and we have over 300 million views of them. That is over 100 VOD views every second.

Q: We’ve talked about your on-demand offering. How many linear channels do you have in HD and how many do you hope to have by the end of the year?

A: The most important thing for us is choices. We are not looking at this as linear channels versus on demand. It is really a question of what you can watch in HD when you turn on the TV at say 8:16 at night. It doesn’t matter whether it is on demand or whether the program is on a linear channel. The question is how many choices you have at your finger tips.

Q: Obviously, the number of linear channels varies among various system. But what might be a typical number of linear channels in HD on a Comcast system?

A: Within those 500 choices, there are linear channels and those vary among the systems … I think in Philadelphia [the number of HD channels] is in the 30s.

Q: There has been a marketing battle between satellite, which is claiming to offer 100 or more linear channels, and cable, which has been emphasizing the choices it can offer as a result of its VOD platform. How do you think consumers are responding to those competing claims?

A: We really do have the most choices and the best quality choices with something for everyone. We are a leader in on demand and everyone trending towards on demand. Consumers want their content when they want it and VOD allows you to give it to them. If you sit down in front of the TV, it is not a question of what is on a particular channel but what is available for me to watch.

So, I think our message is clear and I think consumers are getting it. As I mentioned, we have 300 million a month views on demand and that is just in our digital universe, which is 16 million subscribers.

Q: How would you differentiate your HD efforts from the telcos, which can offer VOD and have plans to offer a lot of HD content on demand?

A: We started on demand in 2003. We’ve been doing it for a long time and we do it really, really well. We’ve managed to premier a number of TV series and have some exclusive content. They have a lot of catching up to do because we have been doing it for so long.

Q: For a long time operators have struggled to make the best primetime and basic cable original series available on demand? Do you see that logjam breaking?

A: We offer all the CBS show the day after they air. We have NBC shows in markets [where they have] owned and operated stations. So we are getting the top shows from NBC, ABC and CBS.

We are doing a ton of premiers, which is fantastic. We did it with VH1 for Flavor of Love and MTV for Real World 20. We’ve done it with Ax Men with History Channel [and others] where they air on demand before linear.

With Showtime’s Tudors, we had their entire first season up for free for on demand and then premiered the new season. We’ve done that with almost of all of the Starz movies. They premiere first on VOD.

If we don’t have as them as a premier we most likely have them the next day. So subscribers know that if they missed it on linear they can watch on demand.

Q: You are getting a lot of these high profile shows in HD?

A: Oh yes. Everything I just mentioned was also in HD.

Q: What have you had to do to your network to handle such a large expansion in HD content?

A: We have the leading fiber network and we have the most IP infrastructure. We’ve been able to leverage all of that to create on demand offering back in 2003 and we continue to make improvements to it continuously to add more choices. [Comcast COO] Stephen Burke mentioned in our last earnings call that the 20% of our markets will go digital this year and eventually we will get to go all digital, which will give our customers better quality and even more choices.

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