Comcast Sets Up Digital Beachhead With Watchable Video Service

Service's Beta Features Shouldn't Surprise Anyone Who's Used YouTube

By Published on .

As the traditional TV business declines, pay-TV companies like Comcast and Verizon are setting up digital beachheads. Verizon rolled out a beta version of its mobile-first video service Go90 earlier this month, and now it's Comcast's turn.

On Tuesday Comcast unveiled the beta version of its digital video service called Watchable. It's free and will carry ads as well as content from 30 of the top digital media companies as well as some traditional ones.

A Comcast spokeswoman declined to share details about the types of ads Watchable will carry and said that the service won't feature any ads during the initial weeks of its beta phase. When the ads do come, the load will be the same across Watchable's site, iPhone app and TV app, the spokeswoman said.

"We think Watchable can be a unique place that curates and distributes the best content from some of the most-recognized brands and producers on the web," said Comcast Cable's Chief Business Development Officer Sam Schwartz in a company blog post announcing Watchable.

Based on Ad Age's initial use of Watchable on Tuesday, the service is about what you'd expect from a digital video service but not that unique. Unlike Verizon's Go90 that offers live and on-demand programming and introduced features like group playlists and the ability to edit your own clips of shows to share, the beta version of Comcast's Watchable shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever used YouTube.

Watchable's home screen offers a variety of playlists, such as "editor's picks" and "trending now," in order to help people find something to watch quickly, like YouTube does with its home page. If people have a loose idea of what they want to watch, they can browse categories like entertainment, gaming, music, news and sports. However clicking on a category won't present you with specific videos to watch. Instead you'll find what Watchable describes as "shows" but are more akin to YouTube channels, such as Defy Media's Smosh and Vice's Vice News, and are home to the actual videos. That means it takes three clicks between choosing a category and picking a video to watch. A third tab will list all the shows (channels, really) that you've chosen to follow on Watchable, making it similar to YouTube's subscriptions tab.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Watchable's beta version is how basic it is, which could change by the time the official version becomes available. For example, the app version of Watchable doesn't offer options to share videos to Facebook or Twitter, though the web version does. Comcast plans to eventually enable sharing to Facebook and Twitter from Watchable's iPhone app, according to a Comcast spokeswoman. Ad Age wasn't able to try out the TV version of Watchable, which is only available to Comcast's cable-TV subscribers through its souped-up X1 cable box.

With Watchable, Comcast seems less concerned with giving digital video audiences an alternative place to watch videos than with giving linear-TV audiences alternative videos to watch. That could explain why Watchable refers to channels and shows, with the implication being that individual videos are episodes, even if they're unrelated. It could also why social sharing was something of an afterthought in the beta version since TV viewers might be less inclined to pick up their remotes to tweet.

And as Variety suggested earlier on Tuesday, Comcast may also be motivated to upgrade the status of Watchable's digital-native content providers in order to level the playing field with traditional media companies and reinforce Comcast's negotiating power when it comes to distribution deals. From Variety:

If Watchable became a roaring success, that would siphon viewers away from the likes of, say, TBS, MTV or Travel Channel. Lower ratings on those networks would put more pressure on the media conglomerates that own the bulk of the pay-TV ecosystem's ad-supported channels, and potentially fuel the move to skinnier traditional bundles.

Comcast has brought traditional media companies into the fold, such as its own NBC Universal, Discovery Digital Networks and Scripps Networks Interactive, as well as content-heavy brands Red Bull and GoPro. But the bulk of Watchable's library comes from a who's who of digital media companies and video networks. That list includes: AwesomenessTV, BuzzFeed, Collective Digital Studio, Defy Media, Jukin Media, Machinima, Maker Studios, Mashable, Mic, Network A, Popsugar, Refinery29, Tastemade, The Young Turks, Vice and Vox Media.

"Many of our Watchable partners have not traditionally had distribution on the TV and we can give them a path to reach new audiences and further monetize their content on the biggest screen in the home," Mr. Schwartz said.