Comcast turns Olympics into X1 showcase for subscribers and fellow operators

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By Steve Donohue

Comcast X1 Olympics detail

Detail of the X1 Olympics Live Extra app. (Courtesy of Comcast and NBC Sports)

Comcast's (Nasdaq: CMCSA) top video executive Matt Strauss insists the company is primarily focused on using its multiplatform coverage of the Winter Olympics to market its cloud-based X1 platform to its cable subscribers nationwide and to help drive ratings for its NBCUniversal subsidiary.

But in an interview last week at NBC's Rockefeller Center office tower in New York, Strauss said that Comcast, which is pitching MSOs like Cox Communications the idea of licensing the X1 platform for their cable systems, also sees potential to use the Sochi games to demonstrate how X1 could benefit other distributors.

"I do think there are opportunities to take that [X1] platform, and make that available to other distributors who might be interested in it," said Strauss, Comcast's SVP and GM of video services.

Since 2009, when Comcast launched one of the industry's first TV Everywhere sites, Strauss has helped Comcast introduce apps for tablets and smartphones that make it easier for subscribers to find live and video-on-demand programming that they're interested in. With the Winter Olympics, which will feature 98 events from 15 sports, Comcast wants to make the improved navigation experience and additional content that will be offered to subscribers using the NBC Sports Live Extra app on mobile devices available on TV.  "For Sochi, a lot of it is about bringing TV Everywhere back to the TV," Strauss said.

NBC has authentication deals with 224 multichannel providers that will allow subscribers to watch live events from Sochi on NBCOlympics.com and through its NBC Sports Live Extra app for tablets and smartphones. But in homes with X1, Comcast is the only distributor that will offer NBC Live Extra on TV.

Matt Strauss, Comcast

Strauss

Strauss said X1 subscribers will also be able to use the NBC app on their TVs to access the live, raw feeds for events before they are televised. Subscribers who use the Xfinity TV X1 Remote app for Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhone will even be able to find events by speaking voice command into their phones such as, "Show me alpine skiing," Strauss said. Comcast also plans to soon deploy new cable remote controls that will accept voice commands. CEO Brian Roberts unveiled the new remotes, which are being manufactured by Universal Electronics, last year at The Cable Show convention in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this week, Comcast launched a network-based DVR service for X1 subscribers in Boston. During the Olympics, the company plans to use network DVR technology to power a feature called "Primetime Olympics Live on X1," which Strauss also described as "instant on demand." The feature will allow subscribers in six markets who miss the beginning of one of NBC's primetime Olympics telecasts to start the program over from the beginning. Subscribers won't be able to skip commercials, as they might with a DVR, since the fast-forward function will be disabled. Strauss said subscribers who use the feature, which is similar to Time Warner Cable's (NYSE: TWC)  "Start Over" service, will also be able to watch late-night local newscasts from NBC TV stations after NBC's primetime coverage ends each night.

In addition to Boston, Comcast plans to offer instant on-demand in Atlantic City, N.J., Providence, R.I., New York and Philadelphia.

Several pay-TV distributors ramped up marketing efforts for the Olympics this week, with Cox Communications, DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV), Time Warner Cable and others announcing that they will offer subscribers 1,500 hours of live and on-demand content from Sochi.

DirecTV spokeswoman Jade Eksted said that the company will dedicate its Sportsmix channel to Olympics programming. The mosaic program guide will display thumbnail videos showing content from NBC, USA, CNBC and other networks carrying Olympics programming.

NBC spokeswoman Christine Reisner said that Comcast, AT&T (NYSE: T) U-verse TV, Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH) and CenturyLink's (NYSE: CTL) Prism TV will also use an interactive application to display medal counts, athlete bios, Olympics news stories and reports on the performance of the U.S. Olympic team.

Comcast X1 Olympics on demand

Comcast's X1 Olympics on-demand menu. (Courtesy of Comcast)

Comcast subscribers using NBC Live Extra on TVs connected to X1 set-tops will be able to view multiple live video feeds to find something their interested in, and DirecTV offers similar capabilities with its mosaic program guide.

Time Warner Cable executives have said that the MSO will soon introduce a new cloud-based interactive program guide similar to Comcast's X1 guide. But for the Sochi games, TWC announced this week that it rely on placing multiple NBCU-owned networks in a single channel neighborhood in order to make it easier for subscribers to view Olympics programming. TWC will group the high-definition feeds for NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network on channels 1465-1469.

The Sochi Games will mark the first Winter Olympics of the TV Everywhere era. As Strauss noted, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were held about two months before Apple introduced its first iPad, the tablet that now offers the most TV Everywhere apps from pay TV programmers and distributors.

According to NBC, during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, pay TV subscribers authenticated nearly 10 million devices in order to get access to live programming. Officials at NBC wouldn't say how many subscribers have opted to pre-authenticate for the Olympics. But earlier this week NBC Olympics announced that it would offer Web surfers and mobile device users nationwide a temporary pass that will give them 30 minutes of access to the Live Extra mobile apps and website. If viewers fail to complete the authentication process, they'll be able to watch three minutes of Live Extra content on subsequent days during the Sochi Games, which will end on Feb. 23.

NBC said it also has agreements with Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), Cox, Midcontinent Communications and parent Comcast which will allow subscribers to use "in-home auto-verification" to automatically access Live Extra. NBC relies on matching the IP addresses of high-speed Internet subscribers for auto-verification. TV Everywhere technology vendor Synacor said about 40 distributors are using its automatic in-home authnetication technology for the Olympics, including Midcontinent. The Peacock network is also working with technology vendor Adobe to offer cross-domain authentication, which will allow subscribers who have already entered login info to watch TV Everywhere content from any network that uses Adobe Pass to get access to Live Extra.

In January, Comcast CTO Tony Werner told attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that Comcast would use the Sochi Olympics to promote 4K Ultra HD programming. While Comcast is inviting industry executives to 4K Olympics viewing parties at its headquarters in Philadelphia and locations in Washington, D.C, and San Francisco, Strauss said the MSO won't display 4K Olympics content in retail stores or other locations where consumers would be able to see events in Ultra HD.

NBC Universal Cable will also entertain pay TV affiliates and advertisers in Sochi. Counterterrorism officials in the United States have expressed concerns in recent weeks about terrorism threats in Sochi, following two suicide bombings in Russia late last year. And on Wednesday, ABC News reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is warning airlines to be on the lookout for toothpaste containers that could hold ingredients that could be used to build a bomb aboard a plane. During some previous Olympics, including the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, NBC has offered advertisers and affiliates the option of attending Olympics junkets at resorts closer to home. But Reisner said NBC isn't offering trips to cities other than Sochi this year. "Like all prior Olympic games, we have many clients attending who are excited to experience the Olympics in Sochi first-hand."

The topic of security threats didn't come up during the interview with Strauss. But the Comcast executive said that he believes the best places to watch the Olympics will be the homes of X1 subscribers. "In my opinion, it's going to be better than if you had a ticket to go to Sochi, based on the level of access that we're going to give our customers."