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Comcast's biggest challenge

During its third quarter earnings call yesterday, the cable operator-cum-media giant explained its biggest challenge to date.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

There are six major diversified media companies that control the vast majority of what you read, see and hear on a daily basis:

  • News Corporation (Fox, Wall Street Journal, Universal Pictures)
  • Disney (ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Miramax)
  • Time Warner (CNN, HBO, TIME, Sports Illustrated, People)
  • Viacom (MTV, CMT, Paramount Pictures)
  • CBS (the TV channel, the radio network, the film studio, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, this site)
  • Comcast (NBC, Universal Pictures, Focus Features)

All of them, as you'll note, have a major broadcast (and/or cable) television component -- a very lucrative business, owing to the peculiarities of its licensing-fees-packaged deals business model.

Even though they're media companies, all of them must face the reality that new technology platforms will disrupt theirs. Just as when cable channels disrupted the broadcast television business, so has Internet streaming disrupted cable-bound television. It's exactly why so many companies play hardball with web-based companies like Netflix and Hulu -- because they are potentially staring death in the face. The details mean everything.

Comcast is a unique case in this group because it's also a cable operator. It doesn't just control the content like its peers, it also controls the (cable, Internet, voice) pipeline into the homes of tens of millions of Americans. So when technology threatens that, Comcast's ears rightly perk up.

During an otherwise unremarkable earnings call for the third quarter of fiscal year 2012 yesterday, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts hinted at this dynamic.

He said:

I think the fact is that people are watching more video today than they ever have. The challenge for a company that is in the television business is that much of that viewing is in places that is neither measured nor monetized. Obviously, SVOD [Subscription video on demand --Ed.] has an impact, Internet streaming has an impact. All the variety of things that have happened due to technology have given people so many more options for viewing that they are viewing more, but they are viewing far too often, in my opinion, in places that are neither measured nor currently monetized. So one of our challenges over time is to make sure that that changes so that the ecosystem continues to remain healthy.

We write much at ZDNet about how new devices and platforms are disrupting how we work, but we must not forget that they are also heavily disrupting established content businesses, too. As we see companies go vertical with their stacks -- in Apple's case, owning the hardware, operating system, digital app store and bricks-and-mortar retail store -- the leverage for these companies during negotiations shifts. The burden on these companies, more than ever before, is to make sure they are where their customers are.

The business of technology is broader than ever. We'll be watching carefully; you should, too.

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