On the Cusp of Comcast

Several stories in the national and regional media of late have brought attention to the changing operations of Comcast, the cable and media conglomerate currently providing cable TV service to over 23 million households nationwide.

Comcast enjoys a significant presence in the Denver metro area, providing high speed Internet services to homes and businesses, as well as digital telephone service, in much the same fashion as Bresnan Communications does in many areas of the Western Slope. A story one week ago in the Denver Post got my attention, and had me asking questions:

Comcast plans to stop providing more than 40 cable channels in analog format by year’s end, including ESPN and MTV, a change that will allow the cable giant to add high-definition content but could force hundreds of thousands of Colorado customers to install new equipment.

Subscribers to Comcast’s extended basic cable tier and above will need a digital set-top box to view the channels that are being switched to all-digital signals.

Customers who want to watch those channels on more than one television will have to install digital adapters on each additional set. Comcast will provide a set-top box and two adapters free of charge. Additional adapters will cost $1.99 per month.

I am a Bresnan subscriber. I have one TV with a digital set-top box and DVR; the rest of the TVs in the house are hooked directly to cable, and use their analog tuners to tune to the desired channel. I started noticing several channels disappear into static on these TVs last year; Hallmark Channel and Ion are a couple of examples. They are only available through the digital tuner that’s part of the set-top box.

The move by Comcast in Denver removes many more cable networks, including some of the most popular ones, from the realm of analog transmission over a cable system. Aside from using a set-top box or digital adapter, the only way to watch these is through the digital tuner of an HDTV.

This is the wave of the future, and not entirely unexpected. Since analog over-the-air TV broadcasting went away last June, the cable industry has begun to address those analog transmissions of digital signals that are eating up bandwidth, and preventing the industry from putting more channels, choices, and potential revenue sources along that same bandwidth.

If you would like a compressed version of this, look at the last 25 years since wireless mobile telephones hit the market. At its infancy, these systems used the “brick” analog radios that used one channel per conversation, making for a comparatively inefficient use of spectrum. Now all conversations are digitized, and through digital signaling and routing schemes several conversations can simultaneously share the same radio channel.

Digital television does the same thing; multiple channels of content can be transmitted over the same digital signal. KKCO has used this capability to broadcast uninterrupted coverage of major news events, such as visits by President Obama. By moving most channels in a cable system to a digital format, the available space to put more content down the pipeline increases significantly.

I’ve known for some time that Bresnan enjoys a business relationship with Comcast on more than one front. Comcast Spotlight, the advertising sales arm of the company, handles cable advertising for Bresnan, and for a while had an office here. It looks like they’re handling everything from one office in Denver now. When you see those commercials for Comcast channels that you can’t get here, or ads to help support an animal sanctuary in the Grand Junction “suburb” of Brighton, that’s Spotlight at work.

In trying to confirm what I remembered about other Bresnan/Comcast collaborations, I contacted Shawn Beqaj, Bresnan VP for Public Affairs. Shawn takes the time to answer questions from an otherwise inconsequential amateur, and I greatly appreciate his time.
Mr. Beqaj had this to say to my question about their relationship with Comcast:

You are correct in that Bresnan has a relationship whereby we get much of our programming under an umbrella agreement with Comcast. As you can imagine those agreements preclude me from discussing specifics but I can say that they are predominantly for traditional cable networks and not local broadcasters. Bresnan has migrated some of our markets to an all digital format but there are no immediate plans to do so in GJ (emphasis mine).

He also added the following about the migration to all-digital technology:

The driving issue is efficiency whereby a customer can receive many more channels of higher quality over the same bandwidth in digital format than analog. Much like tube than transistor radios were displaced by digital sets, the migration to digitally tuned TV sets is progressing and the consumer electronics marketplace is progressing with television set technology that will allow users to have true two way functionality with a TV and no set (top) box.

Having had experience with Comcast in both the Pittsburgh area and New England, I am familiar with the cost of their services and the capabilities they offer. I like the additional channel choices, especially the local access channels, which while as much a responsibility of local government to provide for in franchise agreements are nonetheless well-supported by the cable provider in many cases. Comcast also has many detractors. If you Google “Comcast Sucks”, you’ll see what I mean.

Last week also marked congressional hearings into Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal, which has raised the hackles of consumer organizations and media watchdogs. Senator Al Franken leveraged his knowledge of the business through his previous employment with NBC into quite the watchable program.

The company is sensitive to both criticism over the merger and damage to their brand by the numerous customer service complaints that both originate from and are strengthened by consumer word-of-mouth. In what could be called taking a page from Blackwater’s playbook, Comcast recently announced the creation of a new brand name for the bulk of its digital services.

Regardless of what side you may find yourself when it comes to the subject of media consolidation (I think it’s a problem), if you are a media consumer anywhere in this country and elsewhere, Comcast will be in your living room in some capacity if the NBC deal goes through.

The revolution of digital transmission will inevitably continue to make its way through the various ways that all information is sent between two points, be it data, video, or audio. In the near future, I’ll be outlining another significant change coming to the Grand Junction area, how it affects citizens, and how to prepare for it.

Have a good week ahead.

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One Response to On the Cusp of Comcast

  1. Joe says:

    Bresnan receives all of it's programming with the exception of your local affiliate/broadcasters from the godfather known as Comcast.This proverbial deal with the devil allows Grand Junction the luxury most major cities enjoy, that being more television than you could ever watch and bundled so you have to buy ten others to watch the one you want. All this while enjoying the deep discounts Comcast receives, by being the largest buyer of programming in the Country. Hence Bresnan's huge profit margins. Unfortunately as with most larger M.S.O.'s we have little choice in what Bresnan puts on, or TAKES OFF their line-up. This is why we no longer enjoy HDNet or HD movies on the HD tier. Here today, gone later today!

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