Comcast opens theatrical window

Co. aims for day-and-date releases

Cable could become the next threat to traditional theatrical windows if the country’s largest cable operator has anything to say about it.

Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke on Monday made some of the most pointed comments yet about the prospect of cable ops airing tentpole theatricals day-and-date.

Speaking at NCTA’s annual cable show in Las Vegas, Burke laid out a scenario in which the biggest Hollywood pics would be offered as pay-per-view events on Comcast the same day they hit theaters.

“You can imagine a situation where we put ‘Spider-Man’ (on pay-per-view) concomitant with the opening weekend for $30 or $40 or $50,” Burke said.

Burke later told reporters that the cable operator has had discussions with a number of studios and said several were “very interested” in the possibility.

Comcast, which has an extensive offering of on-demand pics, has been experimenting with airing movies day-and-date with the DVD window in some markets, pacting with Warners, Paramount, Disney, Fox and Universal. But it has never made a push into airing movies simultaneous with their theatrical debuts.

Burke said all the research he’s seen shows that day-and-date would add to, not cannibalize from, theatrical receipts.

“I’m sure some movie theaters won’t like the added competition,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about giving consumers what they want. Anybody who doesn’t do that is going to get left behind.”

He acknowledged that persuading studios to shift their theatrical model could be a tricky task but said that other reluctant content owners had recently come around. “Had somebody told me a few years ago we’d see primetime content available on-demand, I’d have said, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” Burke declared.

Revenue splits could also be an issue; it’s likely studios would want a large percentage of viewer fees to make up for jeopardizing theatrical releases, and it’s unclear how flexible cable operators would be on this score.

Still, that Comcast is saying it will pursue the theatrical window threatens to open up a new front in the windows battle.

As the cable show kicked off Monday, execs also described attempts to offer time-shifting programs beyond the DVR, including a slate of Time Warner Cable services that are being developed.

Company had been dabbling with its DVR-esque Start Over program for more than a year, but topper Glenn Britt said Monday that the company is developing a number of other services. Among them: Catch Up, which would allow viewers to call up the most recent episodes of a serialized skein, and Quick Clips, which would offer video content from the Web via the cable box. All would be aired with no possibility of fast-forwarding through commercials.

In some ways, NCTA is about anything but television. As cable operators stake their business increasingly on phone and broadband services, the feel on the floor and at panels is of an industry focused on relationships outside the entertainment worlds.

One of the biggest subjects of debate so far has been whether wireless residential phone service or commercial broadband service will be the next big area of growth for operators. Top execs also described potential for cable operators to get a slice of the lucrative Internet ad biz by offering over cable lines content that originates on the Web.

Still, the mood was optimistic as the country’s top cable ops have recently turned out solid results despite competition on several fronts.

“There’s always a wall of worry around cable,” said UBS analyst Aryeh Bourkoff. “But cable continues to pull through.”

A pair of more serious incidents marked the early hours of the confab: A bomb went off early Monday in the parking lot of the Luxor, which is located next door to the convention center at the Mandalay Bay, killing one person. And HBO staffers were scrambling to cope with news that topper Chris Albrecht was arrested Saturday night on a misdemeanor battery charge after the net aired the de la Hoya-Mayweather match from the MGM Grand.

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