Clever commercial, Comcast...but you're wrong

Cable company is taken to task over a misleading advertisement about how its high-definition programming compares with that of satellite TV provider DirecTV.

Tech Culture

This post will no doubt confuse those who accused me of taking money from Comcast for writing last week's piece on Comcast's Internet usage cap.

If it helps them feel better, they have my permission to suppose that DirecTV offered me a larger bribe. It isn't true, but they don't seem to care about the truth, anyway.

But those of you who have read some of my even earlier posts may have noticed that I'm not exactly happy with Comcast, and that while I get my Internet access from Comcast, I actually get my TV service from DirecTV, a company I happen to like a lot. (Even though it disappoints me sometimes, I pay my DirecTV bill every month--and the company has never paid me a dime.)

So when Comcast picks a fight with DirecTV, I'm not just going to stand idly by.

In this case, it's a fight over which television provider offers more high-definition programming.

Comcast is currently running a clever commercial based on a fictitious game show called "You might think DirectTV has more HD than Comcast...but you're wrong."

In this show, contestants are asked whether Comcast or DirecTV offers more HD "choices" in a given place and time--for example, in Chicago at 7:12pm.

The answer, according to Comcast, is always Comcast. (I'm as shocked as you are!)

The trick here is that Comcast includes all of its On Demand content and comes up with the entirely artificial figure of 500 "choices." So this comparison has a factual basis...but it's still wrong.

It seems to me that the more relevant comparisons--the ones that would actually be useful to customers trying to choose between these services--involve the number of channels and the total amount of programming available on Comcast and DirecTV.

Based on my own research, the channel comparison goes overwhelmingly to DirecTV by a score of 88 to 35, for channels from external providers.

The 35 HD channels on Comcast's "All Channel" list for Cupertino, Calif., sorted by channel name:

A&E - HD, ABC Family - HD, AMC - HD, Animal Planet - HD, Cinemax - HD, CNN - HD, Discovery - HD, Discovery Science - HD, Disney - HD, ESPN - HD, ESPN2 HD, Food Network - HD, FSNBA , HBO - HD, HGTV - HD, KBCW - HD, KGO - (ABC), KNTV - (NBC), KPIX - (CBS), KQED - (PBS), KRON - (IND), KTVU - (Fox), MHD, MOJO HD, National Geography, NFL Network HD, Sci-Fi - HD, Showtime - HD, Starz! - HD, TBS HD, Theater HD, TLC - HD, TNT HD, Universal HD, VS/Golf HD

The 88 HD channels on DirecTV's "Premier" package plus local channels for the San Francisco Bay Area, also sorted by channel name:

A&E HD, ABC Family HD, Altitude HD, Animal Planet HD, Big Ten Network HD, Biography Channel HD, Bravo HD, Cartoon Network, Cinemax HD East, Cinemax HD West, CMT HD, CNBC HD+, CNN HD, CSN Bay Area HD, CSN Chicago HD, CSN Mid-Atlantic HD, CSN New England HD, CSTV HD, Discovery Channel HD, ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, ESPNews HD, Fox Business Network HD, FSN Arizona HD, FSN Cincinnati HD, FSN Detroit HD, FSN Florida HD, FSN Midwest HD, FSN North HD, FSN Northwest HD, FSN Ohio HD, FSN Pittsburgh HD, FSN Prime Ticket HD, FSN Rocky Mountain HD, FSN South HD, FSN Southwest HD, FSN West HD, Fuel TV HD, FX HD, HBO HD East, HBO HD West, HD Theater, HDNet, History Channel HD, KBCW HD (Ind), KGO HD (ABC), KNTV HD (NBC), KPIX HD (CBS), KRON HD (Ind), KTVU HD (Fox), MASN HD, MSG HD, MSG PLUS HD, MTV HD, National Geographic Channel HD, NBA.TV HD, NESN HD, NFL Network HD, NHL Network HD, Planet Green HD, Sci-Fi Channel HD, Science Channel HD, Showtime 2 HD, Showtime Extreme HD, Showtime HD, Showtime HD West, Showtime Showcase HD, SNY HD, Speed Channel HD, Spike HD, SportSouth HD, SportsTime Ohio HD, Starz Comedy HD, Starz Edge HD, Starz HD East, Starz HD West, Starz Kids & Family HD, Sun Sports HD, TBS in HD, Tennis Channel HD, The Movie Channel HD, TLC HD, TNT HD, Toon Disney HD, USA Network HD, VERSUS HD/GOLF CHANNEL HD, VH1 HD, YES HD

If we throw in the number of pay-per-view channels, the score would go even more toward DirecTV. I can't find exact figures for this comparison, but it looks as if Comcast has, at most, only a few HD pay-per-view channels, while DirecTV has dozens. (DirecTV claims a total HD channel count over 130, but I can't figure out exactly where that number comes from.)

As for the comparison in programming, well, all those extra HD channels on DirecTV carry many programs per day and hundreds per month--each. Even if we throw in the on-demand programming from Comcast, it would lose by a landslide.

The cheap trick of making a comparison at exactly 7:12 p.m. doesn't mean anything to me because you can't watch 500 channels at one time. I think the bottom line is simple: over the course of a day, week, or month, DirecTV delivers well more than twice as much HD programming as Comcast.

DirecTV has its own on-demand service now, based on Internet delivery to DirecTV high-definition DVRs. If we counted that as well, it would only extend DirecTV's advantage. But I don't think that it should count--it's a different kind of service.

This does bring up an interesting point, though. DirecTV on-demand programming would count against Comcast's usage cap, whereas Comcast's On Demand service doesn't--a point made frequently in the comments for my post last week.

But that line of argument just doesn't work for me. Comcast On Demand doesn't travel over your Internet service at all; it comes in through the digital cable service. Both services may come into your home on the same cable, but they don't share bandwidth. This ought to be obvious--even if a customer is using all the bandwidth available from Comcast's Internet service, there's no interruption to Comcast cable TV service.

In fact, you don't even need to have Comcast Internet service to get Comcast On Demand. So of course it's true that Comcast On Demand programming doesn't count against the Comcast Internet usage cap.

This doesn't mean that Comcast is giving its On Demand service an unfair advantage. It's a classic fair advantage. Comcast deployed a cable infrastructure that has enough bandwidth to carry two services; the company is entitled to run two services and treat them as separate businesses.

Some people seem uncomfortable with the idea of businesses having rights, but this is equally a question of individual rights. Comcast has rights because Comcast's stockholders, managers, and employees have rights. In this case, these rights include setting the terms and conditions for the company's services. If it was your company, you'd insist on the same freedom.

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