Comcast Considers NBC Sky News Channel as NBCUniversal Revs Streaming Strategy

Comcast is considering the launch of a news channel that would draw from the resources of NBC News and Sky News.

Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts dropped that tidbit during his remarks Thursday morning on the cable giant’s first quarter earnings call with Wall Street analysts. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke also spoke enthusiastically about NBCU’s progress on its plan to launch an advertising-supported streaming platform.

“We look at this as a way to grow our company and power our company for decades to come,” Burke said of the streaming service that he said is targeted to debut this time next year.

Reps for NBC News declined to elaborate on the news channel discussions referenced by Roberts. “We’re exploring launching a global NBC Sky news channel later this year,” Roberts said.

Roberts cited Comcast’s focus on building up its direct-to-consumer capabilities in four key markets: The U.S., U.K., Germany and Italy, now that it has greatly expanded its footprint outside the U.S. with the acquisition of Sky last year. Roberts said those markets represent 15% of the world’s broadband and video customers but some 50% of pay-TV revenues.

“That’s where the best customers reside,” Roberts said. “You want content opportunities in those countries.”

Roberts and Comcast Cable chief Dave Watson made it clear in their remarks that the traditional cable side of Comcast is increasingly focused on wooing high-margin broadband customers. For the first quarter, Comcast reported a net loss of 121,000 video customers and a net addition of 375,000 broadband customers.

“The engine of growth for cable is broadband,” Roberts said. The consumer migration to on-demand streaming platforms will only magnify the importance of cable’s ability to deliver speedy broadband and WiFi to consumers who are using more and more high-speed internet services. Broadband usage grew some 34% year-over-year among Comcast’s residential customers, Roberts noted.

“Video over the internet is more friend than foe,” Roberts said, calling the seemingly limitless demand for streaming and high-speed internet connectivity “the sweet spot of where this company is going to grow.”

Roberts emphasized Comcast’s heft as a buyer and producer of content. He said the company spends $24 billion annually to “purchase and produce” entertainment, sports and news content for NBCUniversal and Sky.

“As the streaming eco-system evolves, (the market) leans toward the wonderful strengths across all of Comcast,” Roberts said.

Burke didn’t offer too much in the way of details about NBCU’s ad-supported streaming platform other than to say that “hundreds of people are working on rights and technology” to support the 2020 launch. Former NBCU Cable chief Bonnie Hammer was dispatched to head the effort in January.

Burke said he was not concerned about NBCU being late to enter the arena as Disney, Apple and WarnerMedia also rev up streaming platforms. “We think it’s very, very early innings,” Burke said. “In some ways its reminiscent of cable in the 1970s and ’80s.”

Burke said NBCU’s focus is on grabbing viewers quickly with a free service to launch first in the U.S. followed by the U.K. “We think that’s the way to get to real scale quickly and achieve profitability more quickly,” he said. “We think there is plenty of room for multiple companies and different strategies.”

Among other highlights from the hourlong call:

Roberts refused to tip Comcast’s hand on plans for its 30% stake in Hulu. Disney became the majority owner of Hulu last month after absorbing 21st Century Fox. AT&T sold its 9.5% interest in Hulu back to the joint venture — which now consists of Disney and NBCUniversal — earlier this month. “It’s really valuable,” Roberts said of Hulu. “We’re glad we own a large piece of it.”

Burke said NBCUniversal saw the predicted slowing of growth on the virtual MVPD market, which helped offset some of the cord-cutting pain for cable programmers in recent quarters. Churn for the new entrants is increasing as promotional pricing discounts end. The rate of traditional MVPD erosion was “nothing really dramatic” in the first quarter, he added.

Burke also gave a bullish outlook for the coming upfront advance advertising sales for the 2019-2020 TV season. For one, the U.S. economy is generally strong, as evidenced by scatter market pricing that has been consistently 30%-40% ahead of last year’s upfront pricing. “The reality is there are more and more places to spend on digital. But TV remains a platform for big companies that want to change people’s brand perceptions in a way that you just can’t find on the internet,” Burke said.

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