Comcast last week signed a deal creating a premium commercial-free on-demand service with FX Networks.
The deal comes at a time when, according to Matt Strauss, executive vice president and general manager, video and entertainment services at Comcast Cable, there’s probably more high-quality original programming available than in the history of television.
Comcast will see more than 4 billion hours of on-demand usage this year and Strauss said the cable operator will continue to invest to provide instant gratification and to blur the lines between what’s live, what’s on-demand, what’s on your DVR and what’s over-the-top. Strauss talked to Multichannel News contributor Jon Lafayette about what Comcast is thinking as it launches premium services. Here’s an edited excerpt of their conversation.
MCN:Based on the AMC Premiere and the FX+ announcements, have you found a segment of your customers who don’t like watching commercials?
Matt Strauss: We think of ourselves as the aggregator of aggregators. We want to have all of the choices and the best choices available in one place. In many ways, that is why we put Netflix on X1 and we’re putting YouTube on X1 later this year.
At the same time, DVRs are now at 50% penetration of the market and in many ways, it gives you control, it gives you the ability to fast-forward through ads or, if you have cloud DVR, we give our customers the ability to stream their DVR recordings or download their DVR recordings, so in many ways this is just another choice.
There is a segment of viewers who would be willing to pay an incremental fee for a more premium experience. They do that today with premium channels. They do that today with [subscription video-on-demand] services.
Commercial-free is one piece of it. If somebody really wanted that premium experience — had the ability to, in one place, catch up from the beginning and have the most comprehensive catalogue of FX programming — it really didn’t exist. And now, with our technology and through our partnership with FX, we have the ability to offer FX subscribers the option to a more premium experience.
MCN:Did you do consumer research on the demand for commercial-free options?
MS: We have done research on this. There’s absolutely a segment of the population that would be willing to pay an incremental fee for a commercial-free experience. We’ve been offering electronic sell-through now for years and in a relatively short amount of time we’ve actually become one of the largest digital retailers in the country. So we’ve even seen it first-hand where people are willing to pay $3 an episode. So there’s both research and there been some actual transactional data that has led us to believe that there is a segment — it’s not everybody — who is willing to pay extra.
MCN:How big is that segment?
MS: It’s hard to say only because it depends on the network and the passion index of the network.
But there’s something even bigger at work here, which is it’s providing the networks a sandbox to experiment with different models and to potentially provide also a mechanism for them to reclaim rights or to aggregate more rights or to experiment with more original programming, and to do it in a way that we think is going to really benefit our customers.
MCN:What have you learned since adding Netflix to X1?
MS: Since we’ve added Netflix, I think we’ve seen all boats rise. We’ve seen an increase in total on-demand consumption. We’ve seen an increase in total viewership on our platform and as a result we’ve also seen many networks see an increase in their viewership because we have even more eyeballs using on-demand.
So I think as we continue to offer more and more choices — but also do it in a way that it is contextually integrated — I think that the key on the X1 platform, whether it’s the voice remote, whether it’s our recommendations and the personalization, it’s how do we snap this all together in one place.
It also gives us the ability to contextually offer somebody a subscription, so if you’re watching American Horror Story, you’re going to be able to go to X1, it’s live, you’ll be able to now watch it on-demand for free with ads and there will be another choice that says would you like to subscribe to FX+ and watch it ad-free or watch all the prior episodes and the prior seasons?
You’re seeing those elements all come together in a way that’s redefining what you should expect to get when you subscribe to pay TV and certainly kind of surprising; it’s delighting our customers when they have a platform like X1.
MCN:Did your ad sales folks object to the commercial-free services?
MS: I can’t comment on that. I think though that it ultimately has to start with the customer and the viewer giving them the choices.
And if you look at our technology, technology has continued to evolve and that means that we have to challenge the status quo, even if that means in some cases disrupting ourselves. … We’ve always been very bullish on giving customers more choice and creating the technology to add more value to pay TV and we’re not going to stop that.
Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
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