A Comcastic Mistake

As a digital media technology analyst, I get the chance to look at a wide variety of electronic program guides (EPGs), a privilege which allows me the opportunity to weigh the relative merits of one guide versus another and, in some cases, see new features and applications long before they come to market. For these reasons, I’m obviously going to have a different point of view than the average user, who in most cases sees only one EPG: that used by their PayTV operator. The average viewer has no way of knowing if their EPG is any better than another because they rarely have an opportunity to compare them in a side-by-side manner. In other words, they have no way of knowing whether the guide they are using is actually worth a damn.

This fact is not lost on operators, most of which have no idea how far guide technology has really come, much less the positive impact that a great EPG can have on the viewing experience. These operators are not keeping pace with innovation and are quite content to neglect their customers by providing poor interfaces, all in the certain knowledge that the average viewer simply won’t know the difference.

Case in point: Comcast. Recently, the cable behemoth stooped to new lows in this practice; a move I consider to be an insult to its highest-paying customers.

Last month, Comcast downloaded an “upgrade” to the EPG used on its dual-tuner HD DVR. With the old interface (seen below in Figure 1), five TV channels are shown on a single page of the guide. In the new guide (Figure 2), the 5th channel has been replaced by a clickable ad. When scrolling through the guide using the up and down arrows, the viewer must scroll through this advertisement as well.

So what does this mean to the average TV viewer? It means that their incredibly slow and woefully inadequate guide just got slower and more inadequate.

For a 300 channel system, the number of pages required to view all the channels for the current hour increased from 60 to 75 or about 25%. Since most people use the UDLR (up-down-left-right) remote control keys to interact with their EPG, clicking through the ad each time they change the page becomes unbelievably annoying.

Since Comcast made this change, I have made it a point to ask people what they think of it. In all cases, and whether living in Florida or California, those Comcast subscribers that use the HD box (a) noticed the change (something which Comcast believes doesn’t happen), and (b) were very irritated by it (something which Comcast can’t afford to let happen). Can this kind of in-guide ad be so valuable that Comcast is willing to risk losing their most valued customers?

A couple other problems that are worth mentioning; again, these are problems that even an average viewer would notice. For one, when I clicked on the ad for Fandango, it simply took me to an information screen which begged me to go the Fandango website (which I can’t get on my TV, at least not without an Internet connection of some kind). Second, on my EPG, an ad for Comcast’s on-demand service also appears. This is particularly annoying since this service is not even available in my city. It’s these little things that make one wonder if Comcast is really trying to make the guide so unusable that as soon as TiVo is available on the Comcast box (currently on trial in Kansas) everyone will immediately subscribe.

Whatever the reason, the result is that a sizable portion of their highest-ARPU customer base is now a bit irritated. Whether this will result in any of these subscribers jumping ship to another TV service remains to be seen. But, as we are all aware, competitive pressures are mounting on the cable industry and it is a certainty that Comcast, being the nation’s leading cable operator, is most likely to suffer from these competitive pressures. With TelcoTV providers sporting new TV guides with video mosaics and advanced search, can Comcast really afford to be moving backward?

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