Comcast Fancast Xfinity TV Hasn't Lived Up to Expectations
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; 12:19 AM
Comcast's Fancast Xfinity TV Internet TV service has all kinds of potential, but a limited amount of cable network and premium-channel content is holding it back. I spent a few days checking out Fancast Xfinity TV, which launched last December, and found that while the service does a number of things right, the content offering isn't yet rich enough to keep me coming back.
The idea behind Comcast's Fancast Xfinity TV service is to enable subscribers to watch their cable-channel shows on their home PC and mobile devices. Once you've logged in, the service checks to see what is included in your cable package, and then allows you to see some of that programming online.
While trying Fancast Xfinity TV, I couldn't help using Hulu as a benchmark, since it's arguably the gold standard for delivering a large amount of TV and movie video online for free. Like Hulu, the Comcast service features a lot of free content (broadcast TV shows, clips, and some movies)--but unlike Hulu, Fancast Xfinity TV offers premium movies and series such as HBO's Big Love and The Sopranos legally online without imposing a rental fee.
Comcast says that a total of 19,000 TV shows and movies are now available on Fancast Xfinity TV.
You can watch the free content on Fancast Xfinity TV without logging in; but to watch the cable network and premium-channel content, you must download and install a program called Comcast Access (including Adobe AIR and the Move Networks player). Comcast Access talks to the Comcast servers and verifies that you are both a Comcast digital cable subscriber and a Comcast broadband subscriber, and then it determines which cable TV package you have. Afterward, the service shows you programming from channels to which you have access in your package.
I had no difficulty downloading the Access program bundle to my PC, and the authentication process was quick and painless. (Some earlier reviewers had problems in these areas.)
Content Feast and Famine
The first thing I ask about any new Web video service is what it brings to the table that the thousands of existing video sites don't. In Fancast Xfinity TV's case, it's premium (HBO and the like) and subscription-only (Bravo, ESPN, etc.) cable content.
Comcast deserves props for persuading some of its content partners to move their shows to the Web. It probably wasn't an easy sell: Comcast says premium producers such as HBO have less incentive to move their shows and movies online because they are not paid from the commercials scattered throughout the show. Instead Comcast pays HBO handsomely for the content, and then sells it to cable customers on a subscription basis.
Still, after all the hype from Comcast about the new service, I'm surprised at how little subscription-only and premium video--especially movies--is actually available on Fancast Xfinity TV. Only a small subset of the video available on your TV through your cable subscription is also presented on the online service.
Fancast Xfinity TV offers a better selection of TV series than it does movies. You can watch some recent episodes of Comedy Central's The Daily Show (also available at the Comedy Central site) and HBO's Big Love, and you can watch old episodes of The Sopranos until you're blue in the face, but you won't find any episodes of Mad Men or True Blood.
Skimming the movie section in Fancast Xfinity TV, I saw titles like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Airport '77, Dead Man Walking, and To Live and Die in L.A. A Comcast spokesperson pointed out a few other, more current titles like Changeling, The Dark Knight, and Slumdog Millionaire, which are good movies but not the most current. I saw a lot of back-catalog stuff like Bill and Ted's Bogus Adventure and Casual Sex? too.
It's apparent that premium-content owners are extremely selective about the stuff they allow to go online. Comcast says that it has no control over this, and that it is entirely up to the content producers which material can be distributed via the Web. It's unclear whether Comcast pays extra--beyond the fees it pays for cable broadcasting rights--to producers like HBO for the right to bring Big Love and other premium shows online.
Aside from the content-selection limitations, the service itself works reasonably well. The video quality was definitely watchable, but looked heavily compressed and a bit grainy as it adapted to the varying throughput I was getting with my wired Comcast broadband connection. In the nonpremium shows and movies, 15- and 30-second commercials appear every 10 minutes or so. All in all, Fancast Xfinity TV is not as pleasing to watch as Hulu.
I also had some difficulty getting the premium content to play properly on my desktop PC; after I selected a title, such as the movie Rachel Getting Married or the HBO series Big Love, the stream would buffer for a long period, perhaps a minute, and then just stop with the viewing window still black. I discovered, however, that if I moved the navigation slider ahead slightly, the video would start.
Finding Shows and Movies
The movies and TV shows on Fancast Xfinity TV are organized in alphabetical order on the site. However, the service doesn't have enough titles to conduct a subject-matter search; for instance, a search for "sharks" isn't likely to yield a rich result. Titles are also sortable by the content provider (HBO, NBC, and so on), but I doubt that many people would use this approach to find a video they're looking for. Typically, you end up skimming through the entire alphabetized list hunting for something interesting.
Maybe I expected too much too soon. Fancast Xfinity TV has been around for merely about three months, and Comcast stresses that it is working hard with its content partners to bring more video to the service.
But that could be a long, slow process. Fancast Xfinity TV can evolve only as rapidly as Hollywood sheds its aversion to embracing the new digital-distribution methods consumers want. But who better than Comcast--the largest U.S. cable provider and the biggest distributor of premium video content--with its deep network and studio relationships and immense buying power, to exert economic force on Hollywood to move video online more quickly?
Comcast's marketing hype around Fancast Xfinity TV suggested that the service would bring the Comcast cable TV experience to the smaller screens of desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. But the service hasn't done that--not yet.