With most of the U.S. population self-isolating, remote controls are getting a serious workout. Streaming, linear viewing and on-demand consumption have all risen sharply. For major video providers like Comcast, the surge has been a mixed blessing. It brings huge opportunity at a moment when movie theaters, sporting venues and theme parks are shuttered. But it also poses challenges — not just maintaining the technical backbone but also curating the right mix of topical and entertaining fare and managing shifts in release windows and access to subscription content.
Comcast, the No. 1 U.S. cable operator and owner of NBCUniversal, is taking the landmark step today of bypassing the theatrical window and releasing DreamWorks Animation sequel Trolls World Tour on demand. The move infuriated exhibitors, but it could become more common even after the virus subsides. For insights into that and other virus-time decision-making, we spoke by telephone with Comcast’s Rebecca Heap, SVP of Xfinity Consumer Services. Xfinity encompasses X1 — which serves about 70% of the company’s 20 million total video subscribers — and Flex, a broadband multi-channel video bundle launched a year ago and offered free to subscribers.
Heap discussed Comcast’s approach to surfacing relevant programming and also addressed the outlook for Peacock, the company’s forthcoming direct-to-consumer streaming service. Despite the postponement of the Summer Olympics, it remains on track to launch next Wednesday as a free, ad-supported option for 24 million Comcast and Cox cable households. A wider rollout, including with subscription and ad-free tiers, is still on the books for July 15.
DEADLINE: How soon into the crisis did you sense that things were really different in terms of what and how much people were watching?
REBECCA HEAP: At the end of the first week in March, we really saw a holistic change in behavior kick in. That was when we really marked the start of it in terms of pulling together a response and support plan for our customers. Even before then, of course, the 2011 film Contagion started to trend on our VOD charts at the end of January. It was in the consumer mindset, informed by what was happening elsewhere in the world.
DEADLINE: What kinds of things, generally speaking, are people looking to watch? Comfort food like comedies? Inspirational drama? Or do they want more straight news than ever?
HEAP: In the early weeks in particular, the audience had a huge hunger for news and information. We stood up the “coronavirus” voice command, which leads to a dedicated destination with local news, national news, CDC, White House briefings, Spanish-language, all sorts of news sources. That was really triggered internally by watching the behavior. The audience really wanted to understand what was going on. [Comcast says the destination has drawn 2 million visits.] Now, in Week 4, Week 5, we are seeing behavior evolve a little bit. There’s a point in the day when consumers really do want to flip over and be entertained and have a breather. We see that on the weekend as well, when the volume of news consumption goes down and it’s much more about entertainment content. News remains of interest, but now it’s just a quick check-in and then they say, ‘let me get on with my entertainment needs.’
DEADLINE: You’ve made a number of subscription offerings available for free, everything from premium networks like Showtime and Starz to more educational stuff like CuriosityStream or History Vault. (And let’s not forget about Dog TV!) Are you planning to track how much of the free viewing gets converted to paid subscriptions once the gates eventually go back up?
HEAP: That’s not the core driver. Often that is why you would do an ungate or a programming stunt, but we’re taking a slightly different approach here. None of our promotions roll to pay. They’re available for a week or two weeks or 30 days or whatever the period is. This is much more about being there for our customers when they’re home and really need more access to a broader range of entertainment.
DEADLINE: The statistics are pretty staggering in terms of broadband usage and overall viewing across the entire ecosystem. Are you relieved that the technological infrastructure has held up?
HEAP: We couldn’t be happier with how the network has held up so far, even with phenomenal increases. There’s been a 200% increase in videoconferencing and voice over IP [VOIP]. On the VOD side, it’s been a 25% uplift year over year, and even greater on the streaming side.
DEADLINE: A lot of VOD is also ad-supported. Is that an area where you’re encouraged by what you’ve seen over the past month?
HEAP: Customers are looking for a range of content, including free content. As an organization, clearly that bodes well for Peacock’s business model. That is a good setup for how they’ll be going to market.
DEADLINE: You’re not directly overseeing Peacock, but from your perspective has the way it will work on X1 or Flex undergone any changes due to the coronavirus?
HEAP: They have had to adjust, and obviously not having the Olympics this year and instead looking toward 2021. But broadly speaking, the Peacock proposition as Matt [Strauss] and the team outlined at our investor day in January, is more relevant now than we all knew at the time. It really is the right time for that product to be rolling out.
DEADLINE: Apart from the “coronavirus” voice command and destination, what other ways have you tried to surface things people want to see at this time?
HEAP: We have three key areas of focus. One keeping our customers informed. The second is education, which is extremely relevant right now. And the third area is entertainment. So we have a “free” destination where we’re putting all of our ungated subscription content. We’ve also leaned into the “Home Premiere” movies, like Invisible Man. For us, that’s been a really big change and great for us that we can step up and make those movies available when customers can’t go to cinemas. We’ve seen terrific traction with those movies so far. We have also created an “Inside Guide,” with everything our audience can do now that they are inside. It’s everything from optimizing their WiFi so they can work from home, fitness, cooking, gardening, travel through the TV (because you can’t in real life).
DEADLINE: With “Home Premiere” movies, how much have you relied on the existing approaches to the early sell-through window and VOD rental release? This new offering, especially with a higher price point ($20 for a 48-hour rental in many cases) in many ways is a new product we’ve not seen before on major studio titles.
HEAP: We’re partnering with the studios on how exactly to go to market. There are two models so far. Some partners have just pulled forward their original electronic sell-thru [EST] window. Other partners have worked with a new transactional [TVOD] window, which is sitting ahead of their standard EST window, with a 48-hour rental. What’s most important is that we’re there in a timely way for consumers and as much as possible keeping to the dates where the studios have already invested on building awareness.
DEADLINE: What kinds of things do you think will really stick from this COVID-19 experience and become permanent aspects of the way you do business?
HEAP: It’s a really good question, and one that we’ve been reflecting on as a team as we’ve gone through the past few weeks. There have been so many decisions and so many big policy and customer-facing changes. We’re constantly reflecting on, “How’s this going? Will we keep this up?” I would say three things. One is, we’re already a close and collaborative team, but I’ve never seen us work better together even though we’re remote. The second is the fast turnaround in decision-making that for us shows up editorially. The third is some of the policy and business decisions. Clearly, we would love to see Home Premieres stay for the industry and for the customer benefit. I think we are demonstrating that there’s a customer need and there will be for a long time. After we’ve addressed the coronavirus and the immediate issues as a society, I think we probably will have changed a lot of consumer habits through this period.