Comcast execs talk Flex, X1, the Olympics and pizza

Comcast's Eric Black (left) and Matt Zelesko (right) talk during the Streaming Summit at the NAB Show New York. (FierceVideo)

NEW YORK – To kick off the final day of the Streaming Summit at NAB Show New York, two key Comcast/NBCUniversal executives held a wide-ranging discussion about customer experience across the company’s video platforms.

Comcast CTO Matt Zelesko and Eric Black, senior vice president of U.S. operations and video streaming at NBCUniversal direct-to-consumer, dove into some specifics on X1, Comcast’s established video platform, and Flex, the company’s emerging aggregation platform for broadband-only subscribers.

Flex, which Comcast recently made free for its subscribers, is a lot like X1 but not centered on Comcast’s linear video product.

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“It’s a big shift for us but it’s still doing a lot of the same things as X1,” Zelesko said.

Flex is an aggregated platform for video – both subscription services and free, ad-supported content – but it’s also a digital home control hub for things like security systems and smart devices. First and foremost, though, it’s a unified platform for lots of different content sources where search and discovery can happen without having to jump in and out of different apps.

That’s not too far from how Comcast CEO Brian Roberts envisioned X1 in 2008, back when it was still called Project Infinity. An aggregator of aggregators is a term that Comcast has thrown around to describe X1, but Zelesko said it wasn’t originally envisioned as a platform for apps. But in decade plus since its debut at CES, X1 has indeed become an integration point for third-party apps from many popular streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.

Still, Zelesko said that Comcast is very deliberate about the apps it brings onto the platform.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever throw the gates open and let all the apps in,” Zelesko said, but he did say that one reason for Comcast’s recent Metrological acquisition is that the company’s tech makes it easier for Comcast to onboard apps.

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In addition to integrating apps, Zelesko said X1 has done a good job of driving people to what they want to watch and increasing engagement. Case in point: the Olympics. He said about two-thirds of households in the U.S. watch the Olympics, but that it’s closer to three-fourths on X1, where consumers watch 10% more sports in general. He also said that ratings were 26% higher the 2018 Winter Olympics on X1 than on other platforms.

When the Olympics come back around for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Comcast will once again provide deep, interactive coverage on X1. NBCU’s upcoming streaming service Peacock will also play a role in Comcast’s Olympics coverage though the specifics on how that will look are still not public.

However NBC’s Olympics coverage plays out across Comcast’s different platforms, voice controls are going to play a big part. Zelesko talked about voice in terms of flattening the user interface for X1 and Flex, meaning voice can enable Comcast to take consumers to places that aren’t necessarily part of the UI. For example, he said, consumers can say “show me kids movies I haven’t seen yet” and it takes them to a curated results page that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Comcast’s voice remote, which comes with both X1 and Flex service, has also gained traction with the company’s subscribers in some unusual ways. Zelesko said that millions of people per month ask the X1 remote for pizza.

“We’re still trying to figure out what to do with that,” Zelesko said.

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