Comcast offers free basic cable during digital TV transition

October 9, 2008

Okay, if you read the release you’ll see that it’s not free for everyone. You have to be someone who isn’t getting cable or satellite TV today and you have to sign up for either telephone or internet service from Comcast. But the point is, if you’re one of the 13 million homes Comcast says has analog TVs and no TV service today, you can avoid the hassle of upgrading your TV or getting a digital-to-analog converter box when the analog shutdown happens in February of next year.

Let’s back up for the people who aren’t as nerdy as I am (most of you) and don’t know what in the world I’m talking about (again, most of you). On February 17th of next year, television broadcasters will cease their analog over-the-air broadcasts in favor of digital broadcasts that use spectrum much more efficiently. Translation: that frees up gobs of space for more advanced video and communications services, the kind Google wants to provide to you. 

With this shutdown, analog TVs using rabbit ears will suddenly become blind. (A recent test of the shutdown in Wilimington, NC was either a modest success or a potential failure, depending on who you listen to.) That means between now and February 17th, there will be a lot of efforts to take advantage of this transition to:

  1. Sell digital TVs. This has been commonly perceived as the most straightforward way out of the problem. We tried to give our 36″ Sony analog TV away (nice one, too), but couldn’t convince people it would still work after February 2009. The fact is, if you get a digital TV, you can tune into a digital over-the-air signal, end of story. However, even with prices falling fast over the last two years, digital TVs are still going to seem expensive in an economy like this one (more on that later, I’m writing a Forrester Report about the economy’s effect on this market).
  2. Get people to upgrade to cable or satellite service. This is obviously Comcast’s goal. Little understood is the fact that if you sign up for Pay TV service, the question of digital vs. analog is settled for you: Pay TV providers can output their content to whatever device you want. Even my digital cable box has analog and digital outputs on it, making it ready for any kind of TV, even after February 17th. 

Seen in this light, it’s interesting to note that Comcast — in a position to make money from this transition — hopes to aggressively give its basic cable service away.

I recently spoke to Derek Harrar, GM and SVP of Video Services at Comcast about this plan. He’s an intensely focused guy, I guess you have to be when you’re in charge of video for the country’s largest cable company. I told him what I’ll tell you: This is a smart move for Comcast, a “path of least confusion” strategy. There’s already so much confusion out there on this topic that making it simple is a wise path. Let people keep their TVs, their remotes (since basic cable doesn’t even require a set top box), and only ask them to change phone or Internet service. Much simpler than getting a government voucher for a discount off a digital to analog converter box. (Call it food stamps for video — TV stamps?).