29 March 2010

Even with Comcast's new Web Site, 'TV Everywhere' Still Isn't

The Washington Post

Subscribers to Comcast's TV and Internet services have been getting a little something extra lately: access to a Web site that lets them watch many of the channels their bills cover. 

The site, called Fancast Xfinity TV (http://fancast.com), builds on an earlier version that left out premium channels. The Philadelphia-based carrier launched it in December and brought it to the Washington area last month. 

Fancast Xfinity is the most ambitious attempt yet to implement an idea called "TV Everywhere." Under this concept, channels and providers work together to provide online access to shows and movies -- but only to people who already pay for conventional, offline viewing on televisions. (Verizon is testing a similar service called Fios TV Online.) 

That authentication requirement makes logging onto Fancast Xfinity a little more complicated than watching a sitcom on Hulu or one of the networks' own sites. In addition to subscribing to both Comcast's TV and Internet services, you also need to install a Comcast Access program -- which itself installs extra video and support software. 

Once you've entered the user name and password of your Comcast account -- I used a temporary one arranged by Comcast's public relations department because I don't subscribe to its services -- you authorize your computer for access to the site. You can also authorize two other computers at any time. 

This wasn't any particular trouble to set up on a Windows 7 laptop. On a Mac, however, I could use the site only in the Firefox browser -- for reasons unexplained in its system-requirements page, Fancast Xfinity doesn't work in Apple's Safari browser on the current version of Mac OS X without extra tweaking. 

Comcast touts an inventory of 19,000 TV shows and movies, but that impressive-sounding total falls well short of what its cable boxes can deliver. Sports are mostly out, but even among the comedy, drama and documentary offerings, you find strange gaps. For example, its HBO content is just as spotty as that channel's new HBO Go site, leaving out the likes of "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Its AMC selection excludes "Mad Men," while Apple's iTunes Store sells entire seasons of that show. 

You can't blame those gaps on Comcast, though. Each network has to decide whether it wants to build an audience by giving viewers more ways to watch its work -- or whether it would rather stick with last decade's business model. 

You can, however, blame Fancast Xfinity's usability issues on Comcast. This site provides far fewer ways to manage your viewing interests than Hulu; you can't add shows to a queue or have the site add new episodes to that playlist automatically. It doesn't say whether particular titles are in high-definition or something less than that. And its lists of what's available are categorized sloppily. "Slumdog Millionaire" is filed under "comedy," for instance. 

Picture quality varied wildly, even over a fast, 15 megabits-per-second Fios connection. A Food Network "Throwdown With Bobby Flay" show could have the look of a VHS recording; MTV's "The Real World: D.C." came closer to standard-definition TV quality; an episode of "The Wire" looked better yet (but sometimes mysteriously slowed down); the first chapter of HBO's "Band of Brothers" came over in crisp high-definition that looked terrific even on a 40-inch HDTV (but I had to reboot the computer to get out of a cycle in which Comcast Access asked me to authorize the laptop for viewing, had me sign in again, then asked me to authorize the laptop for viewing again). 

Bear in mind that Fancast Xfinity is free to Comcast subscribers. And even with its quirks, it provides a convenient way to catch up on missed episodes, sample new shows and follow your favorite programs -- like a TiVo in the sky. 

In that respect, it's a far better way to breathe new value into a cable subscription than stuffing still more channels into a programming bundle. 

But what about people who don't subscribe to Comcast but might gladly pay less for online-only viewing? My experience suggests that's technically possible, but Comcast doesn't seem interested in poaching customers from competitors that way. Wrote spokeswoman Kate Noel: "Right now we have no plans to offer this as a service separate from their television service." 

Fair enough; this site is Comcast's business to run as it sees fit. I'll just say this: I can only wish my employer were doing so well that it could afford to ignore potential markets. 

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