Comcast Sees Big Four Nets Carrying On-Demand

With deals in place offering CBS and NBC shows on its VOD service, Comcast expects to add the other Big Four networks to its on-demand lineup.

COO Steve Burke said he expects ABC shows to join the On Demand service along with Fox, although the Fox addition may be contingent on parent News Corp. divesting DirecTV. "I think we will get ABC shows and Fox, particularly if DirecTV splits," he said yesterday, speaking at a Goldman Sachs investor conference.

DirecTV is a competitor to Comcast, but industry speculation is that News Corp. will trade its stake in the satellite operator to Liberty Media in a complex transaction. Such a move would eliminate some competitive hurdles--cable operators try to leverage VOD as an advantage over satellite operators--and might free Fox to place shows on Comcast VOD. Top News Corp. executive Peter Chernin has said the company is platform-agnostic, and interested in gaining the widest distribution possible for its content.

What's unclear is which compensation model ABC and Fox would pursue in a Comcast deal. Earlier this month, CBS switched from charging consumers to view hit shows on VOD to offering them for free with embedded ads. NBC charges 99 cents an episode for shows such as "The Office" and "Las Vegas." (The shows are only available in markets with an NBC owned-and-operated station). Both networks make their shows available a day after linear broadcast.

Burke said much of the rationale for Comcast's failed attempt to buy Disney several years ago was to gain control over content and break the traditional release windows--as networks are now doing.

Separately, Burke said Comcast is looking to roll out a Web site that would allow its subscribers to remotely program their DVRs. The site would also serve as an ad-supported TV information source for all consumers, helping them sort through programming options on the array of new and traditional platforms. The site would enter a somewhat crowded field, with competitors such as Tribune's Zap2it. Burke added that Google also covets the space.

But Burke threw cold water on suggestions that video consumption is moving to an all-Internet distribution future (known as "cable bypass"), thus supplanting the need for a cable or satellite subscription. "The idea of the Internet replacing a cable subscription is really farfetched," he said, adding that the Internet doesn't have the infrastructure to offer a conventional 80-channel lineup.

Like Burke, Disney CEO Bob Iger has hinted that ABC is more a brand than a network. His company is eager to reach as large an audience as possible with its programs.

Opportunities for on-demand consumption--whether by broadband, iTunes or VOD--are considered key in expanding reach.

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