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Comcast Launches Watchable: Can Web Video Help Save Cable TV?

Cable giant debuts service with 30 content partners, available on set-tops, apps and online

Americans are steadily watching less TV, with the decline particularly pronounced among teens and young adults who have grown up watching billions of YouTube videos. And cord-cutting storm clouds are already clapping thunder over the TV biz.

So what’s a mammoth cable TV operator to do to stay relevant?

Comcast has decided, 10 years after YouTube’s birth, to try its hand at bringing ad-supported, short-form digital video from Internet creators to tablets, phones, computers and TVs — an attempt to hedge its bets if pay TV implodes.

With the Watchable service, which launched Tuesday, Comcast has lined up 30 content partners who largely produce video for millennial audiences. Those include AwesomenessTV, Buzzfeed, Disney’s Maker Studios, Vice and Vox. (Comcast’s NBCUniversal recently plunked down $200 million into Buzzfeed and another $200 mil into Vox.) And unlike its cable TV service, Watchable is available online and mobile to anyone in the U.S., not just Comcast customers.

“A new class of online creators and producers is developing innovative content that is attracting big audiences,” said Sam Schwartz, Comcast Cable’s chief business development officer, in a blog post announcing the launch.

Why would anyone choose to go through the Watchable middleman, instead of simply watching on YouTube or directly from, say, Tastemade’s own sites and apps? Comcast isn’t looking to license exclusive or original content — the way, say, Vessel and Verizon’s soon-to-launch Go90 are.

Comcast does have a large installed base of 22-plus million TV subscribers, and Schwartz notes that “many of our Watchable partners have not traditionally had distribution on the TV, and we can give them a path to reach new audiences and further monetize their content on the biggest screen in the home.”

But those TV subscribers are accustomed to, well, TV. Whether they’ll really have an ongoing urge to watch shorter, made-for-digital material through Comcast’s Watchable funnel is not at all obvious. Meanwhile, the value-added lure for non-Comcast users is supposedly that they can browse a collection of professionally produced content that’s been aggregated and organized by category or playlist. The question is whether there’s enough there to produce a big and active viewer base to make advertising on Watchable a workable proposition.

Now, for the sake of argument, consider a different scenario: If Watchable became a roaring success, that would siphon viewers away from the likes of, say, TBS, MTV or Travel Channel. Lower ratings on those networks would put more pressure on the media conglomerates that own the bulk of the pay-TV ecosystem’s ad-supported channels, and potentially fuel the move to skinnier traditional bundles.

For the time being, Comcast is characterizing the Watchable rollout as a test: “As the video industry continues to evolve, Comcast will continue to experiment,” Schwartz said. “We’ll continue to make investments in new media, create different ways for people to watch the movies and shows they love and test offerings that have the potential to attract new audiences.”

Initially, the service will be available on Watchable.com, Apple iOS devices and on TV via Comcast’s X1 set-tops.

For content creators, throwing in with Comcast on Watchable is a no-brainer. The operator is said to be offering a 70% share of Watchable video-ad revenue, far bigger than the 45% revshare from YouTube and Facebook. If it works, it’s all upside. And if it doesn’t attract an audience? No harm done, really.

Here’s the full laundry list of Comcast’s Watchable launch partners: AwesomenessTV, Buzzfeed, CelebTV, Collective Digital Studio, Defy Media, Discovery Digital Networks, Fast Company, Flama, Future Today, GarageMonkey, GoPro, Jukin Media, Machinima, Maker Studios, Mashable, Mic Media, NBCUniversal, Network A, Newsy, The Onion, PopSugar, Red Bull, Refinery29, Scripps Networks Interactive, Tastemade, TEN, TYT Network, Vice, Video Detective and Vox.

According to Comcast, Watchable will include digital shows from Vice, Discovery’s DNews, The Young Turks, Tastemade’s “Day of Gluttony,” and Defy Media’s Smosh and Clevver will be available via the Internet on the same video platform as live news and sports.

The Watchable content is organized into categories like Auto, Entertainment, Fashion & Style, Food & Travel, Funny, Gaming, Music, News, Science & Technology, and Sports. Over time, Comcast plans to sign additional content partners, add personalization features and include new options for users to share content with friends, according to Schwartz.

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