Cable is broken.
Young people reject its inaccessibility. Consumers loathe its inflexibility. The tasteful and technical among us scorn the clunky, slow interfaces.
But cable companies have done little to stem its decline. With archaic technology, outdated business practices, and insipid marketing, they're losing millions of viewers and jeopardizing their futures.
They need to update their services for modern world, and tell a new story. Cable's inherent strengths just aren't being put to use.
I'll focus on Comcast here. The same principles apply to any cable or satellite provider with an outdated business model and declining subscriber count.
I intend to take something stale and boring and make it fresh and beautiful. What follows is a comprehensive plan to reinvent cable.
I will lay out the turnaround plan along several different dimensions: social, programming, usability, subscription model, technology, and marketing.
Critically, the plan isn't to copy Netflix. Cable brings unique benefits to the table.
First off, let's talk about access. Cable has the absolute highest-quality programming, and lots of it, but it's hard to get to.
Bring together the content...
With its wealth of programming, cable can become the absolute leader in streaming. Unfortunately many programs remain trapped as live broadcasts, easy to miss and often inconveniently timed. As a half-baked workaround, cable companies have extended the old concept of VHS recording to the DVR, which creates a local copy on a hard drive. A hard drive in turn can only store so much, forcing tradeoffs—and it can break down. There is no reason someone should have to manually schedule a recording for a program the provider has already licensed.
Given its immense financial clout (networks depend on subscriber fees to remain viable), cable is well-positioned to renegotiate contracts and bring every live program to on-demand streaming. This will provide for a comprehensive selection of great programs, in contrast with the limited, often shoddy offerings on Netflix.
...and make it easy to access
Content needs to be accessible everywhere. As it stands, accessing programs from different networks requires installing and logging into a dozen different apps. This is so tedious as to be unrealistic, and most people will not bother. Instead people opt for services like Netflix that, while they provide lots of content of middling quality, bring it all together in a single interface. People also turn to devices like Apple TV that host these different services in a tidy package (yet without solving the problem of repeat logins).
Cable has the advantage of limitless content without the conflicts of interest that prevent networks from collaborating. So bring every program together in a single app, with a single omni-search box. Someone can search for a title and pull it up in seconds, without opening multiple apps or navigating a tedious interface.
The current Xfinity TV Go app clearly leaves much to be desired, in terms of selection, interface, and reliability. It doesn't exhibit the level of polish one expects from a company with as much money and as many subscribers as Comcast. When cable starts to view smartphones as destinations of their own, rather than mere accessories, they will put in the investment necessary to build competitive apps.
Humans are social, and entertainment is meant to be shared. Let's return television to the communal experience it once was. A cable service can help draw us closer.
Cable is the ideal environment to watch together, for a single reason: it's synchronized. Everyone gets the same stream at the same time. That's what makes the Super Bowl so captivating: it's a global media event we experience and discuss together. We don't watch Sunday football on Monday.
This gets to an important fact of human nature: We want to do things with other people at the same time.
We used to sit together on the couch, but we don't watch in person as much anymore. And we have a greater number of remote friends. But we still crave the Worldwide Premiere, and want to discuss Game of Thrones in real time. We just don't have organized ways to do it.
Despite technological advances, we lack rich tools for social viewing in the modern world.
INTEGRATE WITH SOCIAL NETWORKS
We turn to streaming to share our experiences, because these services give us access to a common set of programming. But coordinating is such a pain that you might as well watch asynchronously. You have to contact people, agree on a time, and manually get it started. When someone pauses you're thrown off sync. When someone has to leave it's not really feasible to invite someone else, and people aren't going to jump in and out of the stream. Too much work.
Communication is also cumbersome. Organizing viewing manually with messages is inefficient and disorganized. There's no way to see what people are watching or want to watch, so you have to ask each of your friends individually.
To make social viewing easy, reintroduce the status update model that has slowly lost traction over the past decade. Make it simple to broadcast what you're watching or want to watch to friends, and then join a stream with group chat. Partner with Facebook to build and promote it as an official feature—like the old "I'm listening to ____ on Spotify right now." This will allow for people to join and leave whenever they want, hopping between streams and groups of friends.
Interactive features will encourage people to participate. For their part, networks and cable companies can produce actionable advertisements, each of which promotes a specific program and provides a direct link to watch and discuss it. As an example: "Season Premiere of Empire in 15 Minutes—Click Here to Watch." These ads will be incredibly valuable, because users are exponentially more likely to act upon them than some generic blob of text.
LEVERAGE CHANNEL NUMBERS
The largely-forgotten concept of a channel remains powerful: enter a single number to reach a specific video stream you care about.
One benefit of a channel is consistency. There are no carousels, elaborate interfaces, or random recommendations to throw off the order. In fact, the user doesn't need to navigate an interface at all. With a single number for a single channel, someone can flip to a particular program in seconds. Often the simple way of doing things is the best way.
In practice, though, channel numbers don't work very well. They lack internal logic and vary from region to region.
Channel numbers inherit decades of historical legacy, where the older networks got lower numbers and an explosion of new channels were tacked on. The result is a mess with no organizing principle. As a corrective measure, rewrite all the channel numbers and organize them around themes.
The problem of regionalism also presents itself. It's time to standardize channel numbers across the country. It's time to present the same programming everywhere, at the same time. And it's time to make regional networks available everywhere.
To solve the problem of time zone differences, give viewers the ability to synchronize their regions and watch together, live. Friends on opposite coasts can watch the same primetime program at 5pm Pacific / 8pm Eastern.
As it stands, region-specific networks, particularly for sports conferences, are geographically segregated. This makes it difficult to follow teams in other parts the country—ones people often care about more than local ones. Many graduates move out of state and want to watch games from their alma mater. It's time to make every regional network available everywhere. So you can be a Trojan in New York, or a Notre Dame fan in Los Angeles. Since networks are paid based on viewership, you won't pay any more. Instead you subscription fee will go to the regional network you watch. So if you watch Alabama from Oregon, your fees will go to the SEC Network instead of the Pac-12 Network. It's seamless. You simply see the teams you care about.
Channels and on-demand programs will continue to coexist, just as playlists hand-selected by experts coexist with songs selected by users. Sometimes, you want to see "what's on," without having to choose a program. So to check out what broadcasters recommended, flip to the channel. If you know what you want, search for the show.
Programming forms the core of a media service. People stick around because they like what they watch. Cable can do more to offer shows that are relevant and enjoyable.
Mainstream video services neglect the very real demand for programs made outside the White Male Hollywood Bubble, which has traditionally stereotyped the "Other." In particular, multilingual and international programs are hard to find and poorly-promoted. Cable needs to showcase diversity, and venture beyond the homogeneous programs it's often known for.
To start, expand the smattering of mainstream international networks from BBC and CTV to less familiar ones like France24, MBC in Korea, and NHK in Japan. This will provide viewers the opportunity to learn more about international affairs, and to understand domestic issues from the perspective of an outsider.
Beyond news broadcasts, different regions bring with them different types of programming. Japan makes anime. Korea makes variety shows. These formats are worth experiencing. With an investment in subtitling, they can be available to all.
Cable can encourage people to experience different countries and learn new languages. It can also fit into the lives of immigrants who want to retain their native culture.
Give minority communities a place where they're represented. Meanwhile, encourage people outside those groups to explore.
Clean up the commercials
At their finest, advertisements touch and inspire. At their worst they annoy and bore. A major reason for the rise of Web ad blocking is the intrusive and annoying nature of most banner ads. The flashing, noisy nuisances turn off the viewer. Their ostentatiousness achieves an unintended aim.
First off and quite simply, lower the volume. Commercials are regularly louder than the broadcasts, which represents shameless greed and the outsized influence of advertising considerations. Commercials should actually be quieter than everything else, allowing the viewer to focus on what they care about. As in politics, the loudest speakers attract attention but not loyalty.
Repetition constitutes another key annoyance. You see the same commercials from the same advertisers over and over again. It's time to limit promotions to one per advertiser per broadcast. This makes for a greater variety, so the audience doesn't instinctively tune out those they've heard before. The practice of flooding the airwaves must end.
The more meaningful step is to introduce quality standards that advertisers must meet. Web ad blockers have ventured here, with "approved ads" that intrude less on a person's viewing experience.
Here are a few guidelines:
- No phone numbers, which are difficult to remember and boring to hear
- No jingles, which only succeed when they are particularly grating
- No pharmaceutical advertisements that spend more than 15 seconds explaining side effects (work with the FDA to make this possible)
- No political attack ads, which make television unwatchable for months and poison the broader culture
HOST EXCLUSIVE EVENTS
Subscribing to a service should feel like an exclusive club with unique rewards. To reward and attract subscribers, introduce premium events, available for free to all subscribers.
A bold example is a worldwide showing of a blockbuster still in theaters. A move like this generates massive buzz and goodwill, softening cable's image and encouraging people to give it a second look. People subscribed en masse to HBO GO so they could get Game of Thrones, and regular exclusive content can do the same for cable.
Cater to NICHES
Many people choose cable because they get a narrow and deep selection of content that fits their subculture. This is particularly true for sci-fi programming, which is supported by an immensely loyal and engaged fanbase.
When it expands its niche offerings and promotes them better, cable will excel. NBCUniversal can form a semiautonomous division for a specific niche that is free to innovate, and dedicated to making cable the destination for that subculture. By gaining the trust of specific audiences, cable will gain a more resilient subscriber base.
Produce in-house content
It remains unclear why NBCUniversal and Comcast merged. The potential is for a major producer and a major distributor to work together on the best programming. NBCUniversal is one of the world's largest television and movie studios, with a vast pool of talent. There's every reason to use NBCUniversal in a targeted way.
But the company hasn't. One imagines the real purpose was to limit competition and take advantage of arcane accounting mechanisms. So go many mergers.
— Side Note —
Sony offers a cautionary tale of a company that failed to capitalize on its vast and varied holdings. They led in quality in so many categories... but no longer.
At their peak Sony produced reliable motion pictures and television series, high-quality home video discs, premium-quality televisions, industry-leading home video equipment, professional audio and video tools, sophisticated laptops, powerful gaming consoles, and exciting video games.
Sony never meaningfully incorporated their expertise in television and motion pictures with their robust gaming hardware and software. They didn't capitalize on their creation of both the current home video disc standard and a variety of audiovisual equipment like televisions and speakers. There was no reason to be loyal. We didn't see meaningful bundles, like BRAVIA televisions with Blu-ray players.
As a result their different businesses atrophied, and they spun off many of them. Sony remains as a gaming and media company without its soul: the electronics that allow us to have so many digital experiences.
The lack of coordination indicates a siloed organization where groups don't work effectively together.
Comcast and its subsidiary have yet to show meaningful partnership. Meanwhile, Netflix in particular feels innovative and valuable because it produces new high-quality content.
NBCUniversal should begin producing exclusive series for Comcast, which give people a reason to choose cable again.
Services people pay half a grand for every year should be intuitive. They should be simple.
MAke it engaging
When it comes to discovering content, there is no worse interface than a grid of text. A solely text-based interface is actively disengaging, provides little information, and rewards gimmicky titles over relevance. In this setup people will tend to watch what they know rather than try new things. It leads to a lethargic sense that "nothing is on" when in fact there is plenty that the viewer has left to discover.
Stacks of carousels on Netflix aren't so great either. Because they constantly change, rearranging and repopulating, it's hard to browse meaningfully. Netflix throws hundreds of options at the viewer, many of low quality or relevance, leading to indecision and second-guessing. Enough with the endless and unproductive browsing. A recommendation system must stay laser-focused on the most worthwhile content and encourage the user to jump in.
An interface with more multimedia content, including videos, gives someone a better idea of what is available. Presenting fewer but more relevant choices in a less dizzying format allows people to be more decisive and spend less time browsing. When someone watches for dozens of hours per week, a cable service should know enough to provide expert recommendations. New media companies spend millions of dollars to increase engagement even slightly, so cable can surely find ways to keep viewers busy.
One of the primary benefits of cable is the variety. There are so many things to see, yet we make very little use of it. We don't know what's out there.
The easiest way to encourage serendipitous discovery is a random channel button. This simply has not been tried yet, and it opens up the opportunity for someone's "new favorite show."
Companies rooted in the Twentieth Century offer a multitude of confusing offerings, where the differences aren't at all clear, the pricing seems both high and deceptive, and there's so much excess that the investment feels wasted. Cable faces the problem of being as expensive as cell service, with far more arcane pricing.
Emerging alternatives are only more frustrating. Mainstream services like Hulu offer a hand-picked selection of a few good shows, coupled with a whole bunch of garbage. Many of the best programs are kept off. So specialty services like HBO GO step in to provide a comprehensive collection of content from a single network. These appeal to a small fanbase, but having a separate service for each network is absolutely unsustainable, forcing too many choices, providing too many distinct user experiences. The result of this fragmentation will leave people paying $5 a month, for each of 10 services (coincidentally, the cost of cable). And the summation of 10 different networks still leaves 100s of programs unavailable.
In short, networks take greedy slices while users face limited selection.
A new hybrid between monolithic cable and fragmented streaming will provide the best experience.
Pare down the plans
Most services created in the last decade offer one to three plans, making it quick and painless to subscribe. Meanwhile cable plans proliferate, with basic, basic plus, deluxe, premium... and so forth.
The excess of choices means people don't really know what they're getting or what the differences might be. They are forced to browse a bunch of logos for channels they may or may not know very well.
People only need a few choices, which are based on their frequency of viewing and specific interests.
Package it up
The fro-yo model provides an effective outline for how to structure cable plans. You pay a fixed cost for the base, and add toppings based on your individual tastes. You have various options, which are clearly marked and easy to choose from. You pay for only for what you want.
Every subscription starts with a base. In the case of cable, this will include the standard channels that appeal to a variety of interests and carry diverse programming, such as TNT and ESPN.
When it comes to more specialized programming, many say the ideal is to choose exactly which channels to buy. This is tedious. There are hundreds of networks, very few of which people can distinguish by name. Someone doesn't choose which programs they want access to on Netflix, or what studios they come from. At best, dropping a particular network from a subscription saves someone a few cents. It is simply not worth the effort. Networks should be paid based on viewership, so in aggregate subscribers pay for what they watch. It is not the subscriber's responsibility to micromanage the lineup.
A better model is to offer a variety of packages for different interests. Each package is affordable and comprehensive, providing limitless specialized programming. These packages align with channel ranges so, for instance, the sports package will occupy channels 400 through 499.
A simple pricing model is to offer essentials for $20, with each package an additional $5.
And as a good will measure that draws in new subscribers, offer broadcast programming from ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC for free.
price it simply
To buy a mass consumer product shouldn't require haggling, and nor should the price mysteriously change between people and across the country.
Cable needs one simple, straight-forward, consistent price.
Cable companies need to show the price upfront and promote it openly. And pricing needs to be the same everywhere. You shouldn't have to enter your area code—which feels deceptive, like they charge more in some areas. And prices must stay consistent over time. No doubling the price after a promotional period, which is deceptive and destroys trust. And lastly, it shouldn't be a boys' club with back room deals. No special deals, exceptions, or tricks, which raise the price for everyone.
Bring people together
Many people who live or spend together but don't have a head of household want to split costs. As it stands, doing so is cumbersome, requiring manual collection, reminders, and the occasional deadbeat. This wastes time and introduces stress to something very simple. And services like Netflix gain no additional revenue from people who hand out their password. Limits on the number of simultaneous viewers forces viewing compromises.
Under a group plan, subscribers band together, with each member having access to unlimited content. In turn, they see their individual costs drop. This model relies on decreasing marginal costs for each member added. The first member pays the full price, while additional members pay smaller and smaller additional portions.
This works for any social group, or even a family of adults with independent resources. It can even operate as an economic convenience for those who aren't intimately connected but want to spread out costs.
This model enhances privacy—each member keeps their own preferences and recommendations. Programming information (like that embarrassing reality show you watched) isn't shared communally.
And it protects security—each member logs in separately. Sharing your Netflix password is not only cumbersome, but it's awkward for people who aren't best friends—for instance, roommates who don't necessarily trust each other with money or passwords but still want to go in on purchases together.
Each person gets an account and a bill, and no one else has to worry about it.
Comcast inexplicably still markets a cable + Internet + home phone bundle. They don't seem to realize that throwing an antiquated technology in the mix lends the company a dated and lethargic reputation. Home phone is a moribund industry, and it's better to kill it off immediately. Until that happens, it needs to go from the bundles. There is no reason to make it a keystone of bundle offerings anymore. The people who already subscribe to home phone are unlikely to switch providers, and new customers have no interest in that component.
Focus on the Internet bundle, which has natural appeal and works great for heavy video watchers. Keep it simple, and take $10 off when you buy cable and Internet together. It's simple, and there aren't any special tricks or deals.
Improvements to hardware and software should focus on convenience and usability. People will not choose a service available only on a television set tethered to the wall, which is difficult to access remotely, and where the available programming is different on every device. And they have no interest in a service that feels unresponsive and
There are countless options so people will choose convenience.
Cable touts its evolving technology while leaving millions of subscribers on old hardware. Comcast boastfully rolled out the X1 system—an attempt at modernization—years ago but many people remain without it. If X1 is so important they should of course get everyone on the best experience. Now is the time to install X1 for every customer for free.
Getting everyone on a better experience improves customer satisfaction, keeping subscribers loyal.
Open up the hardware
Even with upgrades to technology and design, cable remains dated. Cable companies produce closed systems that aren't open to the competition that spurs innovation. They provide a robust back-end of infrastructure and content, but the front-end the customer uses is woefully inadequate.
Cable providers have a terrible track record when it comes to producing innovative hardware. Their strengths in programming and infrastructure don't extend to consumer hardware design. And because they often provide the cable boxes and remotes for free, they are not revenue generators. At best they will pass the costs along to the subscriber in the form of higher monthly rates, which will drive away subscribers.
Meanwhile a number of established and startup companies are making powerful, fast, cheap devices that play programs without hassle. New versions come out regularly with considerable improvements. Cable needs to abandon their own terrible hardware, which is me too and not at all innovative Instead utilize existing good quality hardware from companies that do it well. Build apps for hardware like Roku and Chromecast.
Broadcast a crisper picture
Broadcast television brings with it various historical defects, perhaps none more than full screen standard definition. Most people have upgraded, but content producers are still required to crop their broadcasts to fit a smaller screen. This means graphics that take up only half the screen and subjects boringly placed in the center. It's time to kill off standard definition broadcasts and dedicate all of cable's resources to broadcasting the world's largest collection of high quality content.
By far the most important work is to improve the fundamentals of the service. Advertising garbage is ineffective and demoralizing. Once cable works for the modern world, it will be time to assert what has changed and what cable is fundamentally about.
Cable has trouble telling its story. Netflix highlights its original series, Apple TV plays up variety, Roku advertises convenience, but cable doesn't talk about what makes it unique and valuable. Instead it focuses on logistical information that no one cares about—like their two-hour appointment window and some discounts on their plans.
Nor do they don't counter perceived weak spots in areas like convenience. Astoundingly, they don't promote their apps, which bring a wealth of live and on-demand content to mobile devices.
In this vacuum, the public perception is that cable is restrictive, expensive, and ultimately unnecessary.
Don't be lazy
Changing the name of their cable to Xfinity was an expensive and worthless publicity stunt by Comcast that didn't trick anyone. Comcast is still Comcast. They didn't change anything else beside their name
To meaningfully shift the conversation, first and most importantly...
Stop calling it cable
Cable is an outdated name for a bygone age. It brings to mind something tethered to the wall, and that restrictive terminology limits the ambitions of cable companies, because they are always referenced in terms of that original connection model.
I propose the name Live Video. It suggests immediacy, explains the concept of real-time broadcasts, and refocuses the terminology from delivery mechanism (which should no longer matter) to content (which has always been and always will be the foundation of a video service).
To explain the new name and the new model, the best approach is to show video being untethered—the cord being ripping out of the wall because you no longer need it. It tells people that the service is no longer just for fifty year olds sitting on a couch.
The first step in any major public relations turnaround is to admit that you screwed up, and that people have valid concerns.
Step one is to admit their mistakes, show humility, and start building some rapport with their current and potential customers. Comcast often feels callous and indifferent to what people want, so it's important to show that they care.
Then, they need to back up their contrition by fixing the problems. Focus on what has changed.
They need to say explicitly: We are learning. We will do better. And here is precisely how.
These statements and stories need to come from a wide cross-section of the company, starting at the executive suite and extending to individual employees. For their part, public relations personnel need to guide from the backseat while letting real people engage with the public. There's nothing less convincing and more maddening than a generic, flavorless press release from people whose only job is to spin bad news and make the company look better than it is.
Focus on the experiences of individual employees, like maintenance technicians, user experience designers, and customer service agents, all of whom are committed to improving the company. We can relate to them and their stories are less rehearsed. Let management apologize, and the people on the ground every day tell the new story.
Sell it on the value
Subscribing to a service, like buying a product, is an economic decision. It is a cost-benefit analysis in the purest sense.
To make the case, show people how $30, $40, even $50 a month is reasonable for what you're getting: incredible quality and variety. That means hundreds of high-quality television series, hundreds of blockbuster movies, and tons of exclusives. Aggressively push the fact that streaming services are losing their breadth and focusing on fewer selections.
Show the math. Dollar for dollar, show that Netflix is $10 and Hulu is $10 and HBO GO is $25, but combined they have nowhere near the same quality and variety of programming as cable. The math isn't always favorable ($600 a year is always a steep sell), but they can at least open up the idea that cable is not a remorseless blood-sucker.
Additionally, tout the live viewing experience as a feature that adds great value. The fundamental differentiator for cable is the ability to watch programming as it appears. Highlight the experience of watching live with other people. And refer to channels as expert playlists that make it easier to find quality programming.
Focus on variety
When it comes to content, the main reason to get cable is because it has every program for every interest you can imagine. You can sum it up in a simple phrase: "Watch Anything."
To make the point more explicit, draw a comparison with the fragmented selection on different services. Show specific titles that just aren't available on streaming. And emphasize the all-too-true joke that Netflix really has a lot of garbage programming. With cable, you don't have to subscribe to a dozen different services to get everything you want.
You can even use Netflix's words against them:
Our goal is to be an expert programmer, offering a mix that delights our members, rather than trying to be a broad distributor.
To make the point more practical, highlight the various streaming services you can access with cable, like dedicated apps from TNT and ABC.
And partner with content producers to highlight programming exclusive to cable — content that's not available on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
Give the company an opinionated, unambiguous identity. What does Comcast stand for, and who is it for?
The Xfinity brand has plenty of undeveloped potential. Use the sharp angles of the logo to show innovation. Boil down the branding to the simplicity of a fast-growing startup.
And sell the service on its own merits. People don't care about the big corporate ownership, which makes it feel stodgy and careless. Repeated association with an unloved parent brand tends to make employees complacent, too. They feel like a cog and not a motor.
Speak to identity and interests
Cable caters to every niche you could imagine. It's the best and often the only destination for sports. It's got countless sci-fi programs. It's the exclusive provider for home improvement and cooking shows. Embrace and target these fandoms.
The most reliable group may well be film buffs. They tend to invest heavily in home theater setups and regularly buy home video (whether Blu-ray or digital downloads). Show the huge variety—from award winners to classics to B-movies—for them to feast on. Play up the fact that Netflix has steadily culled its back catalog of classics. Indeed, Netflix actually provides less of what people want than tiny Blockbuster stores did in the 90s.
The same goes for other groups who want to see their interests represented in the programming. Those who grew up without cable may not even realize what's available.
To highlight the agglomeration of different genres, play up cross-sections. Show cable at the cross between sci-fi and rom-com. Show that you can love both, and that you can find any mix you want on cable.
You don't have to compromise. No more choosing between a Crunchyroll subscription for anime and a Netflix subscription for sitcoms.
ENERGIZE THE COMPANY
As a final thought, it's worth looking at how the company operates, from structure to employment to research and development.
An easy win for any service provider is their customer service. Invest more and bring jobs back to the U.S. This gets the quality up and builds goodwill around American jobs. It's expensive, but positive experiences with agents increase loyalty, making people stop and think before they switch.
A bigger and flashier step is for Comcast to relocate. From personal experience I can attest that Philly is a quaint place, with a slower pace and many traditional industries. If you're being generous, you could say it's like Portland, with a nascent startup scene and lots of hip restaurants. But that's not the right environment for a massive corporation that needs to make fundamental changes. Move from slow-paced Philly to New York or San Francisco. Surround your employees with inspiration and energize them with competition. It's remarkable how much changing your environment affects your mood and thinking.
With robust infrastructure and expansive programming, cable can remain relevant. It must aggressively restructure itself, and establish a new foundation that will make it resilient.
I have no connection to the cable industry other than watching cable as I was growing up
Conceived in Fall 2015 ... Formalized in January 2016