The future of TV may be what Comcast dreams (Q&A)

Comcast stands alone with cable's biggest (and getting bigger) market share and its first cloud-based system. As TV and the Net fuse, exec Marcien Jenckes' hunches are more than just guesswork.

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.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

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Everybody wants a crystal ball, but Comcast comes closest to not needing one.

Television is in the midst of its biggest transformation in decades. Traditional networks are putting more programming online, and Netflix and YouTube are putting online video on more TVs than ever before. As the lines blur, "television" is becoming any video, and "TVs" are becoming any screen.

As the borders between the Internet and television fall, Comcast is grabbing more land than anyone, and in more ways than one. The company's X1 operating system is the first of its kind in the industry, and, based online in the cloud, it basically lets Comcast's TV delivery do anything the Internet can. At the same time, the country's No. 1 pay-TV provider is expected to take over Time Warner Cable. The $45 billion deal will give it control of TV delivery to nearly a third of US homes, and its share of US broadband homes -- depending who you ask -- will range from about 35 percent to more than half.

Combined, that gives Comcast unprecedented sway over TV's future look and feel.

Last year, Marcien Jenckes took the helm of Comcast's Consumer Services Group, which combines all the company's consumer businesses -- video, Internet, phone and home monitoring and security. The executive vice president spoke to CNET about changes in video demand, Comcast's efforts to adapt to it, and his reaction to customer-service train wrecks. The following is an edited Q&A.

Q: How have you seen consumer demand for video shift?
Jenckes: If you went back a few years and asked us what is the future of television, here's what we would have said. It's a lot about time-shifting: Consumers are watching things when they want them. It's about location-shifting: You're no longer tethered by a cord to your television. Content sources are melding: If you want to watch everything about Ferguson, Missouri, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to go to the same place and see what MSNBC or YouTube or the Onion are saying about it. Personalization: Everything else I've talked about leads to a very personalized experience -- I can now watch what I want on demand, when I want it, on whatever device I want, from whatever source I want.

Marcien Jenckes, Comcast executive vice president Joseph Moran/Comcast

Going back several years, we've had this view of the world. Everything that we've done from a product perspective has gone toward enabling it.

Q: As video started moving online, cannibalization was a common fear, but it has played out that the more you give people, the more they watch -- the math of how much people are watching video almost doesn't seem to add up to the hours in a day.
Jenckes: You can't go wrong with doing what's right for the consumer. You can't do it irresponsibly, too, to the economics of the industry. If we showed up and said to our network partners, "Here's what we want to do, and we're not sure whether or not it's good for you," we wouldn't get very far. Honestly, it's probably one of the things we're most proud of. We've gone, from three years ago, maybe 50,000 hours of on-demand content to now 250,000 hours. We've gone from no live streaming networks out of the home to 60 live streaming networks.

Q: Cannibalization fears affect more than just networks. Were there ever tensions about the fact that Comcast invested so much in cable video delivery, which is being swept closer to irrelevancy by moves like these?
Jenckes: No, not really. This company is 50 years old, and it has always been built with an eye toward being relevant for the next 50 years. There's always been a realization that you have to deliver the best services and the most innovative products in order to be relevant. What's changed over time is what's required in order to do that. While the answer 10 years ago might have been scale, the answer today is having the flexibility to deliver a lot of these services from the cloud and being almost ambivalent as to what screen you're delivering it to.

Q: A critic who heard Comcast say its north star is whatever's right for the consumer might immediately point out that recent customer-service fiascos seem to contradict such a claim. How would you respond?
Jenckes: A couple things. This is a company that is reinventing itself. There's a great line, that cable companies used to be construction companies -- that's what we did, we laid cable and broke up streets -- and we're now software companies, companies focused on consumer experiences. That takes a change in skill-set, a change in mind-set. We're in that same migration around customer service. Are we perfect? Nope. Unfortunately, it's when something goes wrong that it creates a real passion point and it gets a lot of attention.

My mother was a teacher her whole life, and her students love her -- what I used to say to my mom is that most of the time, if you take a take a course and you don't do well, it's because you had a bad teacher, whereas if you take a course and you do do well, it's because you're so smart. That isn't to say we shouldn't do away with the bad, we should, and there's a lot of focus and energy and desire to do that.

The other example I'll tell you about, it doesn't involve us but another cable provider: Last September, when the last season of "Breaking Bad" was about to air the season premiere, there was a cable system in Connecticut that went out. And people started calling 911. Imagine what great passion people have to get them to do that.

What I always believe is that we deliver so much value, all these great experiences, we allow people to connect with everything that they're passionate about -- entertainment, their families with their phone, the stuff that they need to do online -- we should be loved. Sometimes things happen that get in the way of that. We have to minimize those. The passion around those negative experiences is long lasting. The bar is very high, but we are very committed to working on it, and we are in the middle of that transformation.