Comcast Rethinking OTT Opposition?

NEWS ANALYSIS – Comcast’s surprise $30.9 billion bid last month for British satellite TV operator Sky may be more than an effort to thwart Disney’s global ambitions. It could signal that the country’s largest cable operator is finally coming to terms with over-the-top video.

In December, Disney announced it would acquire select 21st Century Fox assets, including Sky, for more than $52 billion.

To be sure, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said all the right things: Sky has “great people” and “capable management,” in addition to 23 million subscribers across the U.K., Italy and Germany. What he also admired is Sky’s technological innovation.

After Disney spent billions acquiring New York technology company BAMTech from MLB Advanced Media to further its branded OTT video platforms, Comcast had to reconsider its longstanding opposition to distribution channels other than linear television.

As Netflix revolutionized video distribution by creating the SVOD business model, Comcast responded with TV Everywhere, which attempted to give subscribers on-demand access to programing on digital devices. It then became the first pay-TV operator to offer transactional VOD and digital sell through of Hollywood movies.

While TV Everywhere has finally taken hold with consumers – after lengthy indifference – Netflix has more 117 million subscribers, including 53 million in the United States compared to Comcast’s 21.3 million.

At the same time, executives at Comcast Cable and NBC Universal continued to downplay OTT distribution. In a fiscal call last year, Steve Burke, CEO of NBC Universal, said that while the media company had deals with online TV services such as Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Hulu Live and YouTube TV, he doubted the platforms would make much of an impact.

“They’re off to a relatively slow start,” Burke said.

Indeed, NBC’s attempt at a standalone OTT comedy platform (SeeSo) shuttered after 18 months.

Neil Smit, former CEO of Comcast Cable, in 2016 infamously declared that he hadn’t seen an “OTT model that really hunts.” Less than a year later Smit stepped down as CEO, replaced by company veteran Dave Watson, whose stance on OTT is only slightly changed from his predecessor’s.

But opinions can change in the face of market reality.

NBC, working with Roku, announced the launch of a reality TV streaming service in the U.K. Dubbed, “hayu,” the service offers more than 5,000 episodes of U.S. and British reality TV shows, including “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and spin-off, “Life of Kylie,” in addition to “The Real Housewives” and “Million Dollar Listing” franchises.

“[Comcast’s purchase of] Sky brings with it a trove of exclusive content and rights that could be the basis of an OTT service with a genuine moat, capable of rivaling Netflix itself,” analyst Craig Moffett with MoffettNathanson Research wrote in a March 12 note.

Indeed, while Comcast CEO Roberts has embraced Netflix to the point of offering it seamlessly to cable subscribers, he understands well enough that the SVOD pioneer has morphed into much more than global distributor.

“One can assume that Comcast believes that the combination of Sky’s and NBC Universal’s proprietary content will be enough of a deterrent to ensure that the margins available to an OTT provider don’t simply get competed away,” Moffett wrote.

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