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Cable Show: Can Comcast Really Make Cable TV Cool and Fun?

Chief Roberts shows off ‘X2’ service with web video, enhanced features and voice-activated remote

WASHINGTON — Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts tried to make the case that the cable company has the chops to produce an elegant, personalized and fun TV service just as slick as anything from Silicon Valley.

At the Cable Show here Tuesday, chief of the U.S.’s largest cable operator showed a preview of “X2,” an updated interface for Comcast’s next-generation TV service slated to debut this fall. X2 will provide the ability to access web content on the TV, integrate social media features, incorporate personalized content recommendations and feature a voice-activated remote control. X2 will be accessible not just on TV, but also smartphones, tablets and PCs.

Comcast is “guilty as charged – we haven’t made it as easy as we need to,” he said.

Cable operators like Comcast are being forced to change their TV services more rapidly than ever before. At the same time they’re losing video subscribers to satellite and telco competitors, cable TV faces a new breed of rivals in a battle for the living room, ranging from Microsoft’s Xbox to Apple TV and Intel to Google.

“We would describe ourselves more as a technology and innovation company,” Roberts said. “We think television is going to change more in the next 5 years than in the last 50.”

A new feature available now for existing X1 customers is called “Send to TV.” That lets users send a web page or streaming video directly to their set-top box and view it on the bigscreen TV, using an app on their computer, tablet or smartphone. In addition, for the first time, customers will be able to access TV-optimized websites from a variety of third-party content partners.

The X2 interface will provide different guide sections with TV listings, kids, movies, sports and personalized recommendations based on subscribers’ past viewing selections. X2 also will provide the ability to change and move apps in the menu. Web apps on the platform include weather, Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Comcast’s Xfinity Home automation service.

Vis-à-vis social, X2 incorporates viewer ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and second-screen app Zeebox, in which Comcast is an investor. The on-screen menu will show a “buzz score” for TV programs based on the social activity, and for kids’ content will display ratings from Common Sense Media.

The X2 service is based on a set-top code-named XI3, which compared with a traditional cable box is four times faster, three times smaller, and uses half the power consumption.

The box comes with a “reimagined” remote control, which now features voice commands. X2 users will be able to say what they want to do; Roberts showed off spoke requests such as “Watch ‘Burn Notice’” or “Find Don Cheadle”. “The more complicated the search, the more you want to use voice,” he said.

Again, sounding more like a Silicon Valley exec than an MSO honcho of yore, Roberts said the X2 platform “could be an open architecture,” with a family of boxes and family of remotes that could be open to third-party developers.

Comcast is using a cloud-based architecture, which lets the company introduce new features much more quickly, Roberts said. The original Xfinity X1 service, introduced last summer, has had 1,200 updates in last 12 months. The X1 service is skedded to be available in all Comcast markets by the end of 2013.

Roberts also touted Comcast’s recent “Watchathon” video-on-demand event, which offered 100 TV series for subscribers to watch for no extra charge. The operator plans to do some of form of Watchathon every 90 days.

On the broadband front, asked about Google Fiber’s 1 Gigabit per second services, Roberts said he was hopeful that consumers and applications developers would demand more speed. The CEO demo’d a download of a 4.2 gigabyte file — purportedly a 4K Ultra HD video from Paul Allen’s vacation — over Comcast’s existing network in Washington, D.C. downloaded in 3.93 seconds – at an average speed of 3.2 gigabits per second.

“We have to embrace that competition. In broadband we are the innovator,” he said.

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