Weekend Tech Scan: Comcast's Xfinity is not your father's cable anymore

Seattle's largest cable provider wants to be the nation's largest movie/TV show owner, and is updating your cable box to bring it all home.

Crosscut archive image.

Xfinity's online video player.

Seattle's largest cable provider wants to be the nation's largest movie/TV show owner, and is updating your cable box to bring it all home.

Being a film buff, and a very picky one at that, the possibility of seeing virtually every movie or TV show ever made on my 60-inch living room HDTV — a real possibility in the Internet cloud age — is, well, beyond orgasmic. 

I have my favorite sources — Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video — but I wouldn’t have put cable service Comcast/Xfinity into the same category had I not spoken this week to two Xfinity national executives who came to Seattle to spread the word about what Puget Sound’s largest cable provider is up to. Blaxland is responsible for the the new Xfinity TV features and for Xfinity mobile apps. Gold oversees the promotion of XfinityTV.com TV shows and movies, as well as Xfinity’s Facebook page, with over 800,000 “friends.”

In a sit-down interview at the W Hotel, Xfinity editor Todd Gold and Tom Blaxland, senior director for Xfinity product management, described a service that is decidedly more than your father’s plain-jane, dump all programs and movies willy-nilly into your TV, cable. 

With quality movies premiering on cable before they debut in theaters, a developing editorial department that will create viewing themes to both entertain and educate viewers, and new cable boxes on the horizon that are as much computers as cable boxes, Comcast is standing up to the challenges posed by Netflix, Google, Amazon,  Apple, and Microsoft. All of which stand poised to take over the living room. 

In the midst of ongoing controversy about diminishing viewers, the “cutting the cord” phenomenon (the term given to the pattern of viewers shifting to online, rather than cable viewing), and high cable service costs, Comcast is clearly protecting its territory — its ownership of the living room TV — and moving swiftly into an era when your cable service delivers more, in more places, and keeps those subscription dollars flowing.

If your perception of Comcast Xfinity (Comcast is now the parent company name. Xfinity, the cable service, is a Comcast division as is NBC.) ends with the cable channels and on-demand programs on your set-top box, you’re missing a significant part of the emerging story. Xfinitytv.com, the website, has far more full length programs and films than are available on your older-technology cable box.

That will all change when the new Xcalibur (cq) set-top box becomes available, noted Blaxland. Currently being tested in Augusta, Georgia, the set top box, built by the UK-headquatered Pace company, will offer the versatility of the current website — daily news updates, pointed programming themes — plus access to copious numbers of shows simply unavailable on home TVs with today’s cable technology.

“Half the box is a classic set top box with classic cable infrastructure and video on demand,” said Blaxland. “It’s reliable and stable. The other half is like a fancy computer with a really good graphics chip that allows us to suck in stuff from the web and allow us to change the interface and add new features quickly.”

In addition, Xfinity will continue to push its services into other systems.  At some point, you will be able to watch your Comcast cable service on an Xbox and/or a Roku box.

The company is also developing a second set-box with a webcam, debuting sometime next year, which will be a Skype communications living room system.  Blaxland indicated that Seattle would be among the first Comcast cities to try out the box, but he had no word on pricing, or whether the unit would be sold independent of an Xfinity subscription.

If viewers’ only interest is in current TV shows, the company’s library is already familiar.  Xfinity’s on-demand service currently features next-day episodes from virtually all the major TV networks.  But for those who want much more viewing, such as all HBO and Showtime content—complete libraries of every show ever produced by those premium channels -- or every episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or similar shows, Xfinity is out to make them all available to its subscribers.  “We’re the biggest buyer of content in the country,” said Blaxland.

The company’s goal is to have every TV show ever made available to Xfinity. “That’s our end goal: to have the whole enchilada,” he continued, “but we’re starting with the most recent [shows].  Most of the viewing is the current stuff. Once we get that then we start to go for the back catalog.“

It’s not just TV shows either.  In addition to films already available to subscribers from HBO, Showtime, and Starz, Xfinity is adding films from independent distributors, including Snag Films, IFC, Film Buff, Tribeca (Robert DiNiro’s company), Phase 4, and Focus films.  Some, like Magnolia and Tribeca, use Xfinity as well as other cable and satellite outlets to show films well in advance of their theatrical release.

Celebrities and directors are also getting in on the action, appearing in recorded interviews on the 20-minute “loop” seen on the on-demand cable site, and participating in on-line community chats on the website. Ellen Barkin, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Piven are among those who now include cable channel website appearances, where they once would have only appeared on “Entertainment Tonight.”

Pre-theatrical releasing of films on cable TV is also good business for film companies.  In a phone interview with Crosscut, Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Films, noted that using cable to pre-release films “is becoming an incredibly good paradigm. Unless [your film is being distributed] on a wide release, this is an efficient way to monetize this.”

The films are often of excellent, even Oscar-buzzworthy quality, such as Magnolia-distributed “Melancholia,” by noted controversial Danish director Lars von Trier which, while now playing locally at the Landmark Harvard Exit, has spent some weeks as an Xfinity on-demand film and is still available there until December 19.

Another upside of being the owners of so much content: Consumers don’t have to rummage through programming guides and multiple websites to find shows they want to watch. “The public tells us ‘In this new world I don’t want to have to go to a different website for every show,'" Blaxland explained, "'and quite honestly I don’t even remember what networks a lot of my shows are on.’"

Because of the sheer number of shows in their library, he noted that Xfinity is the most likely place to find virtually any show. The website also contains a function for people who want to see specific shows that aren't yet available. If and when those shows do become available, they will be notified. On the social side, the company is hoping that hosting special live events featuring celebrities and directors, will help develop a strong community of users interacting with Comcast both on and offline. 

In addition to promoting hot shows and films, the editors are working to come up with, if you will, mini-film festivals. Gold noted that they might create a cop show special collection starting with “Adam 12,” a late ‘60s early formula cop show, followed by episodes of “The Rockford Files,” and “Hill Street Blues,” winding up the festival with “The Wire.” They might also run an HBO documentary of the Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe rivalry in celebration of the U.S. Open, assemble a western special featuring episodes from early TV classics such as “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “The Big Valley,” or show an episode of "Lou Grant" in celebration of actor Ed Asner's 82nd birthday (Asner was its star).

“We’re not going to be just a traditional pipe putting programs up on TV or on the Internet,” Gold added. “We’re doing it with an authoritative voice that says to our readers: We’re just like you. We’re really into TV and movies and we want to share the good stuff.”


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