From Comcast to Arris, pay TV embraces Android TV, even as anti-Google sentiment still simmers

The intrigue was thick at Cable-Tec Expo in October, when the board for show producer SCTE blocked a panel focused on operating platform Android TV from its official curriculum at the last minute. 

Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers reps wouldn’t comment on why they axed the panel, which ended up finding sanctuary on the show floor at the booth of sponsor Amino. 

An individual with knowledge of the SCTE board’s discussions said having a panel focused on a Google technology that competes with Reference Design Kit (RDK)-based set-top software tech offered by Comcast, Liberty Global and other SCTE constituents made an Android TV discussion a dicey topic.

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Further, with the pay TV industry still coming off a fierce battle against Google and the FCC to protect its leased QAM set-top business, having Google Head of America’s Partnerships Jon Stewart top-lining the event probably rubbed the board the wrong way, too. 

As far as the SCTE cancellation of the panel goes, that was "a bizarre move,” noted Parks Associates senior analyst Brett Sappington. “Canceling the panel likely brought far more attention to the topic than the 80-100 people attending the session ever would have been able to accomplish.”

The decision also reeked of cognitive dissonance. 

RELATED: SCTE mum on why it shut down Android TV panel at Cable-Tec Expo

Just several weeks after Cable-Tec Expo, Comcast announced a new Android TV app for its Xfinity TV Partner program, which lets users with supported devices use their Comcast video service without a set-top. Comcast’s Android TV app will initially only work on Sony smart TVs, but it’s very imaginable that Comcast will support other Android TV devices soon. 

RELATED: Editor's Corner—Arris looks to challenge TiVo’s U.S. Tier 2 market with Android TV set-top line

NScreen Media analyst Colin Dixon, who moderated the fateful Cable-Tec Expo panel, downplayed Comcast’s entry into the Android TV market, noting that the cable operator remains committed to RDK, the standardized set-top software stack it co-developed with Liberty Global and others in the cable industry. 

“So, Comcast may be dabbling [in Android TV], but it is foursquare behind RDK and X1 as the platform for a connected cable,” he said. “Cox and a couple of other cable operators are already on that combination and are paying a lot to Comcast in license fees. And I mean a lot. There is no way they what other operators to even consider a free alternative to X1 like Android TV.”

The pay TV industry’s leading set-top vendor, Arris, is betting against that latter assertion. At the IBC show in Amsterdam in September, Arris introduced a new line of devices for cable, satellite and IPTV operators based on Android TV architecture. The new Arris boxes allow operators to deliver their own branded services in 4K/HDR video while also delivering a full range of Google OTT services, including YouTube and Google Play transactional offerings.

Arris won’t say it overtly, because TiVo is a partner,  but its new Android TV devices fit right in with the demands of Tier 2 U.S. operators, which have largely turned to TiVo for ready-made solutions that combine linear pay TV services with integrated OTT platforms. As of August, TiVo’s advanced TV solutions were in 23 million homes globally, most of them delivered through cable operators. 

“With the operator-tier, we turn over the entire UX to the operator,” noted Google’s Stewart, speaking on the relocated Cable-Tec Expo panel last month. “The services that are pushing people to switch to HDMI 2 to consume, we want that to be operator-only controlled so that they can keep them on HDMI1. Android TV does have all these other apps available to it from the Google Play store, and there are a few requirements to expose all the apps to the end users. But the rest of the experience is 100% controlled by the operator.”

Added Sappington: "Operators seem interested in using streaming devices as their gateway into the home for streamed services, though many would prefer to make and distribute the box rather than become an app on someone else’s box. Sky has been successful in using Roku’s platform in the UK for Sky Now TV, which has the same form factor, though not the same software, as Android TV devices.”

Despite the chill at Cable-Tec Expo, Sappington sees a general thawing between traditional pay TV and Google. “It seems a far cry from the days when operators worried both about the reliability/security of an Android-based device and about the fact that the Google ad machine would somehow eat away their advertising business,” he said.

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