New deals with ABC, Fox bolster cabler's fight against cord-cutting

Comcast has added more programming ammo as it bolsters its service against the threat of losing subscribers to Netflix and other alternative programming outlets.

As of today, the nation’s largest cable operator is adding current series from ABC and Fox to its cable video-on-demand platform, making it the only subscription TV provider to offer contempo shows from each of the Big Four networks.

The agreement covers selected ABC and Fox shows for its Xfinity TV On Demand VOD channels but not its Web streaming offering. CBS and NBC have made some shows available for VOD viewing on Comcast for the past several years.

As for TV shows, Comcast execs said the separate agreements with ABC and Fox came about largely because it’s becoming clear that subscribers are increasingly embracing the ability to watch shows on their own timetables via VOD. Xfinity TV On Demand is generating about 350 million views per month, up from 300 million this time last year. TV skeins are by far the largest driver of VOD viewing.

Comcast On Demand is also advertising supported, which means that VOD viewing may eventually contribute to a program’s overall rating — a crucial step for the broadcasters.”As we’re seeing more time-shifted viewing, we’ve been working with our programming partners who are looking for new and interesting ways to monetize their content,” said Marcien Jenckes, Comcast’s senior veep and g.m. of video services. “The infrastructure we have in place allows networks to experiment.”

Most network shows become available on VOD the day after an episode’s broadcast premiere. Xfinity On Demand generally has about four to five recent episodes of a show.

Netflix, the fast-growing cable/satellite competitor that has helped fuel Wall Street speculation about consumer cord-cutting of traditional TV services, has a smattering of new and library shows from the major networks. Hulu, another Web streaming-focused rival, has shows from Fox, NBC and ABC but not CBS. The ABC shows headed for Comcast VOD are dramas “Body of Proof,” “Castle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” and laffer “Cougar Town.” Notably absent from the list is ABC’s hit sitcom “Modern Family,” which is produced by 20th Century Fox TV.

Fox is making a wider array of programs available, including “Glee,” “Family Guy,” “Cops,” “The Simpsons,” “Bones” and “Fringe” — but not “American Idol.”

Harnessing VOD as a new source of ratings and ad coin is a prime goal for the Big Four and for ratings provider Nielsen. Fox intends to run the same load of commercial spots in each VOD play as the episode would carry in a linear telecast — which Nielsen requires for its pending plan to roll out a service that would cume ratings for VOD/broadband viewing with the numbers for live and DVR viewing. ABC is said to be experimenting with a different configuration of ads for VOD.Jenckes said Comcast has been working on tests with Nielsen to help work out the bugs of measuring VOD viewing through the watermarking system Comcast has implemented for VOD views. Nielsen has said it will begin offering its so-called three screen cume ratings sometime this year.

Comcast has led the charge in developing cable VOD services for the past eight years. The addition of ABC and Fox shows brings the number of TV series available for viewing via Comcast On Demand to about 600, Jenckes said.

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