While waiting for its X1 UHD set-top box to arrive (it is coming this year), U.S. cable giant Comcast is taking a â€˜TV Everywhereâ€™ approach to getting some 4K content to customers under its brand name. The new Comcast â€˜Xfinity in UHDâ€™ app â€“ available first on 2014 Samsung Smart TVs but coming to other connected devices in 2015 â€“ means Comcast customers can stream a 4K version of content they are entitled to through their set-top box subscription package, but which for now can only be provided in SD or HD on a set-top box.
The content has to be available in 4K for streaming, and Comcast will need the 4K streaming rights, of course. But the operator has made a start building its catalogue, launching with full current seasons of TV shows from NBC and USA Network. The cable company says the app content library will expand with on-demand programming from across multiple networks and studios (which will also be free with participating content owners if your STB package includes the content).
The 4K app is no surprise; Comcast announced the partnership with Samsung exactly a year ago. Xfinity in UHD was made available to download on 2014 Samsung UHD televisions on December 18. You download the app from the SMART Hub, login using your Xfinity credentials and can then start streaming every episode of the current season from hit series including â€˜Chicago Fireâ€™ (NBC) and â€˜Suits and Covert Affairsâ€™ (USA). â€˜Parks and Recreationâ€™ (NBC) is set to debut in February. Customers can personalize viewing experiences within the app by setting parental controls, enabling closed captioning, and managing audio preferences.
Matt Strauss, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Video Services for Comcast Cable, declares: “We are excited to give our customers the opportunity to be among the first to enjoy current seasons of some of the most popular TV shows in pristine Ultra High-Definition. In 2015 we will not only debut the full Xfinity in UHD catalogue across our Xfinity TV Go platforms for all customers to enjoy, but we will begin distributing a new X1 set-top box that will deliver 4K content.”
While Xfinity in UHD follows the same principle as all TV Everywhere (TVE) services, i.e. if you pay for the content on the STB you should get it free on multiscreen devices, it does have one obvious difference. Originally, and still to a large degree today, TVE was about giving consumers device choice and access to content on handheld and portable devices (or secondary television sets). It was a complement to, rather than a substitute for, what you could achieve with a set-top box.
But with the Xfinity for UHD app, the main benefit of the streaming service is to deliver content to the main television set, rather than to handheld devices or secondary sets. So it is doing the job that the STB itself has been designed for. In short, the app overcomes a temporary weakness in set-top box capabilities. This TVE app provides the means to substitute connected TV for standard TV in order to get around the fact that currently, standard TV cannot deliver 4K video.
For this reason the â€˜Xfinity in UHDâ€™ app is interesting as something more than just a way to get a Pay TV operator into the 4K market early. It is an example of how traditional platform operators could use connected TV to achieve experiences that lay outside of what is possible from standard TV, even if only temporarily.
When you think about some of the user experiences that are becoming possible with streaming video, like customized commentary for a sports event or multiple camera angles, these could be easier to deliver in a connected TV environment than a standard TV environment. So there might be times when delivering a â€˜connectedâ€™ service improves on the standard experience.
However you look at it, the â€˜4K in UHDâ€™ app is further evidence that traditional operators are pragmatic and increasingly â€˜hybridâ€™ in the way they deliver services.
The other obvious point to make about one of the worldâ€™s Pay TV giants streaming 4K before broadcasting it is that multiscreen (meaning streaming video to a connected device) has been used as the lead â€˜platformâ€™, even if there are exceptional circumstances (the need to get to market ahead of new set-top boxes). The availability of 4K content on Smart TVs from streaming services like Netflix means traditional operators are under pressure to provide a 4K service of some kind.
UHD looks like one of very few opportunities left to Pay TV operators to squeeze another Â£10 / EUR 13 / $15 a month out of consumers, if we assume they can replicate the HDTV launch model and charge extra for a new generation STB with UHD channels. But if you can get a decent 4K streaming offer on a widescreen TV bundled free with your existing (non-UHD) channel subscription, do you still need the UHD subscription?
That will presumably depend on: What content is reserved only for true UHD broadcast delivery to the STB, and what content is available for 4K streaming; The extent to which â€˜true UHDâ€™ on the broadcast network trumps the 4K streaming experience (and various commentators point to 60 frames per second and better colour ranges as key benefits of â€˜trueâ€™ UHD delivery). Live/linear might be a set-top box only experience if you want truly great pictures on truly big television screens.
If the two experiences (streaming and broadcast) are sufficiently different, and broadcast UHD is sufficiently better, there must be an opportunity for operators to charge for broadcast â€˜trueâ€™ UHD and still offer some 4K streaming on the side free â€“ perhaps enough to compete for consumer attention against online SVOD stores.