Four months in, Comcast’s Xfinity TV Partner Program still missing half the market

Ben Munson

Comcast launched its Xfinity TV Partner Program in April, and Roku and Samsung remain the only companies to join the initiative so far.

Roku TVs and streaming players along with Samsung smart TVs represent a sizable amount of the streaming market. Factor in Xfinity TV’s Android and iOS apps plus its website, and Comcast is extending its authenticated TV Everywhere experience to many of the most prevalent devices.

Indeed, Comscore said in June that PCs, smartphones and tablets overwhelmingly lead the way in terms of U.S. household. But, although OTT streaming devices are a distant fourth, they are still in 39 percent of U.S. homes.

Having Roku in the program means the Xfinity TV app for streaming devices is off to a good start since Roku controls 49 percent of the OTT streaming device market, again according to Comscore. But without Amazon, Apple and Google opting in yet, the program is still missing half the pie.

comScore Total Home Panel Custom Analysis, March 2016

This compatibility gap creates problems for Comcast. For one, a lack of clarity between mobile and TV apps has apparently caused confusion for Comcast customer service and subscribers waiting on an Apple TV app for Xfinity TV. A recent post from a Reddit user made it sound like Apple was delaying the release of an Xfinity TV app for Apple TV, when in reality Apple has not yet joined the program.

Comcast has said it expects to announce more partners later this year but the MSO did not immediately respond to FierceCable’s request for an update on the program.

But more importantly, the seeming lack of enthusiasm and participation in the program reflects poorly on Comcast-supported efforts to push back against FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s “Unlock the Box” NPRM.

When Comcast first announced the partner program, Wheeler jumped on it, saying it essentially proved his whole point about the pay-TV set-top box ecosystem.

"What Comcast just did by doing that is proving our point that you can take a third-party device, put set-top box functionality into it and protect copyright, protect the economic ecosystem, not have to rebuild the network, and all these other horrible things that the industry has tracked up," Wheeler said.

Of course, Wheeler’s proposal involves refiguring pay-TV content and data to be delivered on third-party devices, allowing companies like Google deep access to pay-TV systems. The alternative – spearheaded by the NCTA and MSOs like Comcast – involves MVPDs building video apps that stick to open HTML5 web standards.

That common framework provided by HTML5 is at the heart of Comcast’s partner program and, judging by the turnout so far, might not be a hit with device makers.

Some of that may be because of HTML5 compatibility issues. But Comcast has expressed willingness to work with device makers on customized Xfinity TV apps that can function on their platforms.

However, there may be other motivations holding up the partner program.

For one thing, Comcast has banked heavily on its X1 video platform and set-top and the MSO is just coming off its NBCUniversal unit’s exhaustive coverage of the Olympics, which Comcast billed as a coming out party for the X1 and all it can do. With so much time and resources riding on the X1, it seems unlikely that Comcast would want to pour too much attention into a program that potentially renders the X1 as less than necessary.

Jason Blackwell, director of service provider strategies at Strategy Analytics, said Comcast likely has a desire to roll out service to third-party boxes but, though it could change in the future, right now the mentality for Comcast and U.S. consumers could still be that it’s just easier to get a box from the provider.

“I do think there’s an expectation that that will change and I think that both Comcast and probably a lot of consumers want that to change,” said Blackwell. “I’m not sure what’s holding that back at this point.”

Of course, Google has incentive to not jump into Comcast’s HTML5-based partner program when it potentially stands to gain from an FCC set-top box mandate and less so from the HTML5 alternative being pitched by the pay-TV industry.

“Google wants to have their hands into the data and benefit from monetization and advertising. Apple has their own business model that’s not tied so much around advertising but of course they’d like to get into that data as well for upselling and selling other products,” said Blackwell. “The question’s whether Comcast wants to give access to that and I’m imagining they probably don’t.”

Blackwell added that Comcast is certainly tech savvy enough that it could monetize that set-top box data on its own without giving up the data to a company like Google.

With no final decision yet on Wheeler’s NPRM and some creeping doubt around whether his original proposal could work without harming MSOs – especially smaller ones – it’s still unclear if Unlock the Box will disrupt the current pay-TV set-top box ecosystem.

But as initiatives like Comcast’s Xfinity TV Partner Program seem to crawl along – whether due to lack of a push from Comcast or lack of interest from third-party manufacturers – it seems clear that alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from MSOs still have a long way to go until they can affect much change. -- Ben