Comcast: We'll ditch set-tops, just not anytime soon

As its lobbying org, the NCTA, pitches an alternative set-top regulation regimen calling for CPE to be ditched in favor of apps, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) walks a fine line.

On one hand, the MSO is a powerful driver of the cable industry's "Ditch the Box" counter-proposal to FCC set-top regulation plans, having just introduced a new initiative to natively power its cable TV service through multi-screen apps on third-party devices including Samsung smart TVs and Roku streaming boxes.

Counter-intuitively, Comcast's recently re-engineered cloud-based X1 programming guide, designed to operate within the MSO's managed network on advanced set-tops, is driving major increases in pay-TV usage and subscription growth. 

Visiting the NBCUniversal studio lot Wednesday from Comcast's home base in Philadelphia to further showcase the ambitious integration of NBCU's Olympics coverage and Comcast's X1 platform, Matthew Strauss, executive VP and GM of video services for Comcast, told FierceCable that, essentially, the set-top will eventually get ditched, but that's not going to happen soon.  

X1 users currently have the ability to tap into their service using TV Everywhere apps that access IP video, which are limited in functionality, at least to some degree, by content rights, Strauss said. The full implementation of X1, which enables the program guide to aggregate apps into a seamless viewing experience, is only available through the home managed network, which right now requires a set-top.

"That is dictated by content rights," Strauss said. 

Comcast is using the Olympics as a showcase for X1's "aggregated, contextualized" programming guide, which pulls video from multiple programming sources — QAM and IP alike — into an intuitive, learning piece of computer software, designed to help users navigate through 6,755 hours of coverage from the Rio Games, most of it streamed through NBC Sports apps.

X1 usage is up 30 percent since Comcast debuted the basics of this program guide, Strauss said. 

And currently, the only way to experience it is through an X1 set-top. 

"The box, in many ways, is just a moment in time," Strauss added, noting that the lines between what Comcast can do with IP-based multiscreen apps and video over managed networks using set-tops is "blurring."

But for now, Comcast's development of an app-based distribution system and its investment into advanced set-tops "is not mutually exclusive," Strauss said. "Limiting someone's ability to only view television through apps amounts to a missed opportunity."

Related articles:
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Wheeler: 'I'm following Reagan's advice' on set-top regulation
Roku pushes back against pay-TV's 'Ditch the Box' plan in FCC meeting

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