Cable TV Scrambles to Play Catchup

Top brass at the industry’s annual Cable Show in Washington, D.C. acknowledges need to be more nimble and innovative

Comcast Brian Roberts

Embrace or annihilate? Both sides of the cable biz’s split personality regarding Internet video technologies and services took the stage at this year’s Cable Show in Washington, D.C.

In one corner was Comcast. Topper Brian Roberts used his keynote slot at the cable biz’s annual confab in the style of a Silicon Valley product reveal to tout X2, a new guide that will span TV, tablets, smartphones and computers to deliver smarter recommendations, Web content and apps, and a voice-activated remote control.

Comcast’s firm belief is that it can beat challengers like Apple, Amazon, Google and Intel in the living room with its own elegant, simple and powerful TV experience. The operator also showed a “cloud” TV service, which will sling live TV and DVR recordings to Internet-connected devices in subscribers’ homes and provide virtually infinite storage.

Roberts offered a mea culpa for the ugly and clunky cable guides of yore, asserting that the new Comcast is focused on hardware and software innovation. “Guilty as charged,” he said. “We haven’t made it as easy as we need to.”

But in a more defensive thrust, the industry has been planting landmines around its perimeter to keep insurgent Internet players at bay. Time Warner Cable chief Glenn Britt disclosed during an analyst sesh at the show that the operator has programming contracts designed to prevent would-be “virtual cable operators” from licensing cable programming.

Programmers also are of two minds about the potentially disruptive rise of online video. Overall, new tech has been a boon for traditional TV — roping more fans into hit series rather than driving them to cut the cord.

Thanks to subscription VOD services like Netflix, ratings for 70% of AMC Networks scripted series have increased in subsequent seasons where TV historically had gotten long in the tooth, said AMC prexy and CEO Josh Sapan, speaking on a panel. “We’ve seen these escalations on these TV shows,” he said. “They have been enabled by this disruption.”

Even over-the-top video boxes like Roku’s can help the cable TV industry, according to Steve Shannon, G.M. of content and services. About 70% of Roku’s 5 million-plus users are cable customers, and about three quarters of them ascribe new value to the pay-TV package because of the TV Everywhere apps on their Roku box, he said.

Still, Sapan said, online viewing could someday hurt traditional cable: “There’s always the specter of friends turning into foes, or growing up to be foes.”

Cord-cutting, while small today, is a real phenomenon as more pay TV subscribers dropped their service in the past 12 months than have signed up, industry analysts have reported.

TV Everywhere is the industry’s great hope for keeping people paying for pay TV amid oceans of online video, by letting subscribers watch current-season fare across multiple screens. But the idea is now more than four years old and still suffers from low usage and sporadic availability. Just 16% of broadband users have ever used TV Everywhere, according to a survey that movie channel Epix released last week, although those who have used multiple devices to watch programming are more likely to believe cable TV is a good or excellent value.

At the show, bizzers maintained that TV Everywhere is on the cusp of achieving critical mass. But notable gaps remain. Last week, MTV finally bowed its first TV Everywhere app — but it’s available to only half the U.S. pay-TV audience. Comcast and Dish Network are the biggest holdouts. Viacom says it’s in talks with them.

TV Everywhere in large part is a defensive measure, available only to distributors (and their subscribers) who pay full freight. But some operators see the need for even more stringent protections: TW Cable has contractual provisions to keep cable networks out of the hands of over-the-top video providers, according to CEO Britt. The exclusivity clauses effectively shut out Internet-based distributors, by forcing cable networks to choose between having their channels carried by TW Cable, the second-biggest cable operator in the U.S., or an upstart online service like the one Intel is developing.

Industry observers labeling the practice anticompetitive included BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield. TW Cable disputed the charge, comparing the exclusive provisions to Hollywood’s movie windowing and Netflix’s relaunch of “Arrested Development.”

Longer term, cable’s survival depends more on opening up to a broader ecosystem of partners than on trying to stymie competitors. Roberts, again sounding more like a tech titan than an old-school MSO honcho, said the X2 platform “could be an open architecture,” with a family of set-tops and remotes created by third-party developers.

“We would describe ourselves more as a technology and innovation company,” Roberts said.