Winter Olympics overload? Comcast wants to be your video DJ

Comcast is inventing more than 50 "virtual channels" that string video together like a playlist, an experiment it may roll out to all kinds of programming.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
4 min read
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Who needs channels? Comcast wants to DJ an Olympics playlist for you.

The return of the Olympics on Thursday brings the biennial challenge of sifting through hundreds of hours of sports coverage to figure out what's on, when and where. With NBC planning more than 2,400 hours of US coverage for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, it would take you more than three months to watch everything, assuming you never slept, paused or blinked too much.  

But for Comcast, this onslaught of Olympics video has become the cable company's favorite workshop to test out new concepts, which may become staples of your pay-TV service.

This year, the company is taking a page out of Spotify's playbook to warp the definition of a TV network: virtual channels that Comcast programs like playlists.

"It's a totally different way to think about being a network in 2018," Matthew Strauss, Comcast Cable's executive vice president of Xfinity services, said in an interview Monday.

A TV shows virtual channel options for watching the Winter Olympics

Comcast, which uses the Olympics as a chance to experiment with new features, is creating more than 50 "virtual channels" that curate the Games' 2,400 hours of coverage. 

Nick Ferrari Photography

It comes as viewers have already redefined how they watch TV. With the rise of Netflix, YouTube and other streaming video providers, television has widened to mean more than what you watch on your living-room screen. As people have grown accustomed to watching whenever and wherever, more traditional TV is being viewed on demand, too. 

Comcast, for one, saw on-demand viewing jump 25 percent last year, mostly because people are shifting to watch at their convenience rather than at an appointed time.

New-age networks

A traditional TV channel, when you boil it down, is just a curated playlist of video, Strauss said. Networks as we know them are a product of television's earliest technology, where TV producers were constrained to a single, linear feed of video and ads. The only way to show more TV was to create another channel.

For the Winter Olympics, Comcast is creating more than 50 "virtual channels." These run a gamut of interests -- gold-medal moments, super-high-quality 4K HDR footage or a specific sport like curling or snowboarding, to name a few. The point is to take the chaos of Olympics coverage and curate it into something feels familiar, like a network.

Clicking a virtual channel drops you into a feed of video already playing. Instead of being locked into the moment you tune in, users can jump forward and back through the playlist.

"We can create an almost infinite number of these channels," Strauss said, "by combing across networks and channels and sources."

The company, which is the biggest US cable TV provider by subscribers, is offering the virtual channels as part of its comprehensive hub for the Olympics on X1, its system that operates more like a sophisticated TV app than a grid of channels.


Comcast is also putting streams of the Olympics on its mobile app. 


In its initial tests for the Olympics, Comcast has a team of editors working in partnership with NBC to sort and curate coverage into the virtual channels. In the future, editors would work in tandem with algorithms that could personalize channels to your own viewing habits.

(Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the broadcaster of the Olympics. The company says it works with NBC on X1 features just as it would any other programming partner, and NBC makes the same content available to all pay TV providers.)

The idea of stitching together on-demand video into a channel-like stream isn't new. Startup Pluto TV, for one, has millions of viewers tune in every month to its free service that puts together more than 100 channels of on-demand video set up like linear networks.

But Comcast's virtual channels have the benefit of its vast collection of programmers. In addition to all the networks on its pay TV service, Comcast has integrated Netflix, YouTube and web clips from digital providers into X1. Virtual channels could pull from any of these. 

For the latest Games, X1's Olympics home page also will offer app-like features. A daily summary page with a snapshot of that day's events, latest results and medal count, and the X1 Sports App will be tailored to the Games, providing a column on the right-hand side of the TV screen with live stats, highlights, scores and other details. Its Xfinity Stream app will make the Olympics available on the go on mobile devices.

One feature -- "Instant On Demand," referred to as iVOD, which would let you instantly jump back to a figure skater's routine if you tune in right in the middle -- was a prior Olympics experiment that Comcast has rolled out broadly. After testing it for Rio and Sochi Olympics, Comcast has deployed it for many cable shows since.

It may not be a record-setting athletic feat, but according to Strauss, the Olympics "gives us this digital sandbox to test the boundaries of our technology." 

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