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Comcast launches Web TV service

Fancast Xfinity will allow millions of its subscribers who pay for high-speed Internet access and television to watch cable shows online.

December 16, 2009|By Dawn C. Chmielewski

Cable operator Comcast Corp. said it would make its experimental Web TV service available to millions of its subscribers who pay for high-speed Internet access and television, paving the way for people to watch cable shows online.

The newly christened Fancast Xfinity TV service allows subscribers to watch full-length television shows from 27 networks -- including pay cable offerings HBO, Cinemax and Starz -- on their computers. The cable giant is aggressively rolling out the online service, which it tested with 5,000 customers over the summer. It will be available immediately to most of Comcast's 15.7 million Internet service subscribers who also receive cable TV service.

"The launch today represents almost a year's worth of work by teams across Comcast," said Comcast Interactive Media President Amy Banse. "We think it's a good experience that's only going to get better over time."

Fancast Xfinity TV is part of a cable industry initiative called TV Everywhere that seeks to capitalize on the burgeoning Internet video phenomenon while at the same time protecting its lucrative subscription TV business.

Xfinity TV provides online access to such popular current cable shows as HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and TNT's "The Closer." But in order to watch them, subscribers must furnish their Comcast e-mail address and password -- information that's used to verify that they are paying cable TV customers. If a subscriber doesn't receive HBO in the home, they won't be able to watch it online either.

Analysts hailed the Xfinity TV approach as the first viable business model for offering cable TV shows online because it preserves the dual revenue streams of fees and advertising that underwrite the cost of programming. The service is also a hedge against subscribers cutting the cord to take advantage of the proliferation of free, online content.

"It's a defensive move," said Bobby Tulsiani, a media analyst with Forrester Research. "The threat was not Comcast subscribers switching to Time Warner or to satellite; the threat was subscribers giving up pay TV subscriptions altogether and moving exclusively to the Internet."

In addition to the cable programming, Comcast's Web TV offering incorporates broadcast television shows from ABC, NBC and Fox, which are provided through a distribution agreement with the online video service Hulu. Comcast's bid to acquire a controlling stake of NBC Universal would also give it a 30% ownership of Hulu, a venture in which Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox are also partners. Xfinity also has CBS shows.

Notably absent from Xfinity is the pay cable network Showtime.

"We are having discussions with programmers about making their content available," said Matt Strauss, Comcast's senior vice president of new media. "Without getting into the specifics of those discussions, we'll add more and more content" over time.

The Fancast service already has 12,000 hours' worth of TV shows. With the addition of the authentication technology, Xfinity added 2,000 hours of cable television shows and about 900 movies carried on pay cable, such as "Juno," "The Dark Knight," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Wall-E."


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