Cable Providers Update Boxes to Retain Fleeing Customers

With its Xfinity X1, Comcast has remade the traditional cable box, with a voice-enabled remote that allows search across live TV, on-demand and sources such as Netflix. It combines the multiple apps, passwords and monthly fees of streaming services into one place, with one bill. Perhaps we don’t need to get rid of cable, but rather to improve it. With the advent of ever-more choices from Apple, Amazon, Roku to Verizon and T-Mobile, the major cablecasters have the chance to bring their services into the modern TV age.

The Wall Street Journal reports that cable companies still have the advantage of being “the most popular, and often most affordable, way to get fast Internet, something all those streaming services require.” But although the typical model of renting a box with a two-year contract from the cable provider is “hugely popular,” it is also “rapidly dying.”

Nielsen reports that, “of the 5 hours and 24 minutes the average adult spends watching video daily, a full 4 hours and 13 minutes is spent on live and recorded TV,” but that doesn’t include the fact that “viewing on other devices, like phones and streaming boxes, is rising fast while standard TV watching declines.”

In fact, millions of people have already canceled cable. But streaming services, for all their benefits, also come with the problem of “manag[ing] a Rolodex of usernames and passwords,” remembering to pay all the bills and the necessity to pay for broadband Internet, especially to watch live TV. Some streaming services offer live TV options, but that will also raise the overall price of bundling multiple streaming services.

The WSJ reviewer adds that finding content on all those streaming services can be a time-waster. “Before you know it, you’ve spent your movie-watching window staring at thumbnails,” he says. “I don’t care what Tim Cook says: The future of TV is not apps. It’s TV.”

The reviewer notes that the Comcast Xfinity X1 box offers live and on-demand TV as well as “content from Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.” “Most of the time, I search by speaking into the voice-enabled remote that Comcast and other providers now offer, which takes all the work out of flipping channels,” he adds. “I particularly miss Hulu — but it’s still the biggest content library I have.”

Another aspect that’s changed is that, “most cable companies offer apps that let you access all your movies and shows on your phone, tablet or PC.” There is a caveat: “thanks to longstanding rights deals, some shows aren’t available when you’re not at home, and I can’t believe how many sports games are blacked out on my phone.” There is also a “shocking” number of ads. Cable operators are also trying to improve billing, so subscribers aren’t “surprised by fees.”

But industry analyst/venture capitalist Matthew Ball stated that, “the cable bundle is re-forming, not via cable, but from Amazon and Apple,” noting that, these and similar companies “are rapidly getting into the channel-bundling business, offering many of the same search and discovery features plus the same one-bill simplicity.”