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Comcast helps subscribers, holds itself back with Fancast Xfinity TV site

I didn't think of this phrase until I was almost finished writing today's review of Comcast's Fancast Xfinity TV, so it doesn't show up there until the last few paragraphs: "like a TiVo in the sky."

That's the nicest thing I have to say about this site, which lets Comcast TV and Internet subscribers view much of the programming they pay to get on their televisions; Comcast PR, I guess you'll want to quote that in an ad.

comcast xfinity auth step 1.JPG

But I also have my share of negativity about this site.

There's the silly "Xfinity" brand, which initially reminded me of Dunder Mifflin Infinity and led Consumerist to mock it as the kind of name a porn movie studio might adopt.

There are the usability glitches and the puzzling gaps in content that other reviewers have critiqued.

There's the poor marketing of Fancast Xfinity that seems to have left many viewers unaware of its existence. The first reaction I got to the piece on Twitter was "How come they are not letting their customers know about this?", while a reader comment here read: "Is that what this xfinity thing is that they've been advertising? The ads make it seem like more of a rebranding effort."

But the real problem is the industry mindset behind this site and other "TV Everywhere" ventures. Cable and satellite companies aren't wrong to pitch online viewing options as a bonus with a regular subscription; were I shopping for pay-TV service (which which I'm not at the moment), I would certainly consider this a reason to pick Comcast over other providers.

But providing Fancast Xfinity or a site like it for free to existing subscribers doesn't preclude charging non-subscribers for Web-only viewing. You could do both at once. TV providers would have to renegotiate carriage contracts with networks to allow this, but after that they'd be free to build their businesses by giving viewers yet another way to become a customer.

True, they would risk cannibalizing some of their existing subscriber base -- but they could also sell Web subscriptions nationwide, instead of only in areas where they already offer TV service.

And yet a disturbing number of people in the TV industry seem incapable of grasping that point. Consider, for example, this blog post by Mark Cuban that enthusiastically defends TV Everywhere but never mentions the possibility of selling online-only subscriptions alongside that -- Cuban acts as if the only other way to provide video on the Web is to give it away for free. The writer is a pretty savvy guy in general (Cuban's day job is owning the Dallas Mavericks); I am genuinely puzzled why he doesn't talk about that option.

You can see a similar sort of low-resolution thinking in such ventures as HBO's existing-subscribers-only HBO Go site and the repeated actions of the networks pulling Hulu's strings to stop viewers from using software that might make it easier to watch the site on an HDTV.

I can only conclude that TV providers must not feel that threatened by competition, or they wouldn't be so quick to cast aside chances to go after new customers. Or maybe TV Everywhere critics aren't off-base to see this idea as nothing more than an abusive attempt to cement the pay-TV cartel's current business model.

You can help me provide some context to that discussion: In the comments, tell me how much you'd pay for a Web-only TV subscription, how you'd like to see such a service work, and whether you'd then drop your existing cable or satellite subscription.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 26, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  TV , Video  
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Comments

This service is not unlike having a free Slingbox but without having to buy the Slingbox.

I have a FiOS bundle from Verizon and use a Slingbox to watch TV remotely with no gaps in what I can watch including anything that I might record on the DVR.

For now, I have no interest in paying for TV over the Internet from any provider either with or without my existing FiOS TV subscription.

I think it is the fate of many established suppliers to hold onto their existing business models and not exploit new ones, ultimately to their detriment.

Posted by: Arlington4 | March 26, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

There would be several 'ifs' to be met before I would consider it and what I might be willing to pay.

1. The signal would have to be HD quality.

2. Since my life does not revolve around my phone, PC and other electronic gizmos, it would have to be available to me independent of my computer. Say, for instance that my Internet access would first travel through my TV or a decoding device.

3. I would have complete control over what content I would subscribe to.

4. If # 3 was not an option, The cost would have to be SIGNIFICANTLY less than cable; otherwise I would be flexible on cost.

5. Since business is conducted on our home network, there could be NO degradation of Internet performance on the PCs.


Posted by: ancientdude | March 26, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I think you are getting too far ahead of the crowd, Rob. As one can tell from ancientdude's comment, it is not even sinking in that Xfinity Fancast is FREE for Comcast subscribers. Promotional efforts need to be revved up and basic information like that needs to be communicated before considering expanding the offer to non-subscribers.

I have not decided whether Xfinity Fancast is pass or fail yet. I've only watched its content on my MacBook Air. Sometimes the video drags, but that could be because of a slow processor. I'll wait until I've watched an hour-long program or two on my MacBook Pro before saying more.

Posted by: query0 | March 28, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Rob - if you had readers that wanted to pay you directly for access to your articles without the bother of buying the Washington Post, would you do so? Would you first consider how your editor at the Post would feel about that? Would the number of people that want to pay you directly be large enough oppt'y to justify putting your paycheck from the Post at risk?

This is exactly the scenario you're asking the pay TV networks to consider - to chase direct online subscriptions from a TINY (but admittedly growing) universe of people that would want an "online only" subscription, but only if it offered substantial savings to what they're paying now, and btw, they want to pay less for the content online AND eliminate most of the advertising "clutter".

The economics simply don't support it - over time, they might, as consumers realize that quality content and distribution must be funded, either directly through subscription fees or indirectly through advertising.

Posted by: Anon247 | March 29, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

"TV providers would have to renegotiate carriage contracts with networks to allow this, but after that..."

After that, they can solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, cure cancer, and land a man on Mars, which will all be easier tasks.

Posted by: thekohser | March 29, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Comcast and others keep piling more into their basic cable and making everyone pay for weahter they want it not. All of this needs to become a la carte. The consumer should only have to pay for what they want. I watch just 2 or 3 networks which unfortunately are not part of the basic package, but I have to get everything to get them. Prices keep going up and I am almost at the point of saying its just not worth it and get the shows from Netflix. The cable companies (and satelite) are so tied to their currect business model that they can't see any other options and its eventually going to crash on them.

Posted by: mdembski1 | March 30, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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