Should cable companies build smart TVs? (or, how do cable companies avoid the fate of telcos?)

First, there was Ma Bell. Then, deregulation of the phone company happened in the U.S. and phone calls went from being very expensive to very cheap (my dad ran a small business in the 1980s, and telephone bills could often be thousands of dollars — in 1980s dollars!). Then came the Internet, and ISPs (think AOL) and the telcos found that all the value was farther up the stack, and they were being relegated to the roll of “dumb pipe” (to extend the metaphor, there’s a lot more value in fancy faucets than there is in PVC tubing). The only provided transit, it was commoditizing — everyone was racing to the bottom in terms of price. For the last decade, cable companies have been fighting this same battle. As people increasingly “cut the cord”, cable companies have been losing high-value cable TV subscriptions, but gaining low-value broadband subscriptions — they’ve been becoming dumb pipes. So far in 2020, Comcast (the #1 cable TV company in the US by number of subscribers) has lost 1.2 million cable TV subscriptions, but gained 1.4 million broadband subscriptions. It’s exactly this trend that has caused all of the “cable companies” to become media companies. They know that there’s limited value in being a dumb pipe, but “content is king”. Except … oops. Maybe content isn’t king. They now own the content, and they own the infrastructure, but, where’s the value? It turns out, a lot of it is in distribution. Hence, the age of VOD wars. NBC (the media part of Comcast) is trying to entirely reinvent their business model. That might (or might not) work, but parent Comcast isn’t sitting still. The Wall Street Journal reported that Comcast and Walmart are in discussions to “develop and distribute smart TVs”. The way the Journal frames it, this is about Comcast getting Peacock (their video streaming platform, aka VOD (video on demand, e.g., Netflix / Hulu / Amazon Prime Video) in front of you. I don’t think that’s going to work. But that said, Walmart is already one of the largest distributors of smart TVs; and Comcast, unlike a lot of other cable companies, actually has a ton of software in this space. To be sure, it will be an uphill battle (are you going to buy a Walmart smart TV instead of an Amazon Fire TV, or Roku, or Apple TV?), but “smart” TV technology is becoming commoditized. They’re not going to be free, but these new TVs could be the modern equivalent of AOLs ubiquitous CDs. It has the potential to put Comcast as the default streaming hub in millions of homes; and, arguably more importantly, in millions of homes that are outside of their cable-company geographic footprint. It’s still early days, but this could be the move that helps Comcast keep from becoming just another dumb pipe.

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