Thursday, October 20, 2005

Comcast Wants to Google You

Soon, you will be mine
Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts spoke yesterday of his plans to remake the nation's largest cable provider into the Google of television.

Comcast has been rolling out and expanding its on-demand video service, which supposedly enables viewers to choose when, where and what they view. This trend is a byproduct of access to high-speed Internet, something a majority of Americans still lack.

But there's more to Comcast's ambitions than meets the eye. On-demand video also allows companies like Comcast to peer in on your home viewing habits and serve up the resulting data to advertisers and others.

The Dawn of Two-Way TV
As transmission speeds increase, customers will be able to download video programming much as they now download music. Comcast wants to become your first conduit for video search and downloading, much like Google is for today’s text-based Web content. Roberts told the Chicago Tribune yesterday that “part of Comcast's strategy is to become more like Google by making it easier for customers to search for the video content they want, when they want. One part of that strategy is developing a more robust interactive TV viewing guide.”

Now, more than any time in its brief history, Robert’s cable industry stands poised to inherit the future of American television. And no one project is more vital to cable’s power grab than video on demand. But there’s a catch, on-demand is also important to cable executives because it allows them to gather personal information about the millions of customers they’re supposed to serve.

Cast in its best light, interactive television is about enabling viewers to pick the shows they want to watch at the most convenient times. It marks a tectonic shift of the power dynamic between the television business and its audience, placing more control in the hands of those who hold the remote.

But the technology behind all that new viewer freedom slices both ways.

The same digital pipeline that turns your television into a viewer-customized device also can be used to siphon off personal data to be sold to an advertising industry eager to target their products more finely, one consumer at a time.

A New Model for Profit
Until recently, the history of commercial television was built around broadcasters’ ability to beam into homes a carefully mixed cocktail of programming and advertisements. This is all changing as new technologies such as Tivo allow millions of viewers to fast-forward through the 30-second commercials that once bankrolled commercial programming. This practice, known as “commercial avoidance,” threatens to bring the $60-billion-a-year TV advertising business to its knees.

According to a recent Smith Barney report, the tipping point for commercial avoidance devices could come as early as 2007, when the television industry may lose as much as $7.6 billion -- or about 10 percent of its annual ad revenue -- as companies seek other ways to reach consumers.

This stormy media forecast has scattered television’s business model to the whims of the viewers, forcing a mass industry shift toward new devices that will keep them in the game.

For Comcast’s Roberts, “on-demand video” is the company’s safe harbor. Its concept is simple: make users pay for their content directly. This notion is not foreign to cable. Since its inception, cable has asked consumers to ante up endlessly rising sums for programming. But many of the cable executives in town this week believe they need to go one step further: that the very survival of television depends on viewers, not just advertisers, accepting that they must subsidize the high cost of producing each of the shows that Americans love to watch.

VOD and its sister service, pay-per-view, is already a $1.35 billion business; many cable analysts are projecting a meteoric increase as the service spreads from home to home. Cable is going to be the conduit by which this revenue streams back to the content makers -- but not before cable providers gobble up their chunk of the fee.

Payback: Your Data
Companies like Comcast, Cox Communications and Time Warner have spent nearly $95 billion since 1996 to make VOD a reality, laying an on-demand path into American homes, involving high-speed fiber networks and cable wires. And they’re ready for their big payback.

With the groundwork in place, VOD will allow users to choose their own programming from a startling array of content -- from movies and sitcoms to, one hopes, locally produced documentaries and niche news and information -- all at the click of a remote. According to industry analysts, the cost will range from 30 cents to $1 for standard programming, with higher rates applied to first-run films, sporting events, live concerts and, yes, even pornography.

More than 91 percent of cable-ready homes in the U.S. have access to interactive television services that make VOD services possible -- with more than a third of U.S. cable customers now subscribing to digital cable. This number is expected to increase apace as cable providers roll out more interactive technology.

Ultimately, viewers who spend several hours each day before their sets will be paying more to the cable industry to enjoy their favorite programs. But that’s not all they’ll be giving away.

A spate of new companies have rushed forth to offer software and services that will give cable operators more direct access to viewer tastes by cataloguing their VOD choices in centralized databanks. In turn, the cable industry can repackage this viewer data and sell it to advertisers that are eager to fine-tune their product pitches to “high-probability” consumers. And since traditional advertising -- in the form of the 30-second spots – is on the wane, advertisers will infiltrate their products throughout the programs themselves as they devise more intrusive methods to hit their targets.

From the industry’s perspective, this technology will make ads more relevant to the lives and needs of their viewing customers. A recent New York Times article casts a rosy light on the new technology: “Instead of commercials being an annoyance, they become information a viewer needs, perhaps even craves.”

But privacy concerns loom large as advertisers could collect more information about each viewer’s tastes than the viewer might want to reveal. The cable industry promises to safeguard this consumer data behind impenetrable firewalls. Recent cases of mass identity theft at credit companies such as Choicepoint and Bank of America demonstrate that these systems are vulnerable to attack.

This danger won’t stop the industry from pushing forward a viewer identifying technology that would place cable firmly at the center of the trillion-dollar business model for the future of all television.

As Roberts plots out more inventive ways to win American hearts, minds and pocketbooks, know that your personal data has become his Holy Grail.

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