Where's the WhatsApp of TV?
Last week, Comcast agreed to buy Time Warner for $45.2 billion in a deal that will, if approved, merge the two services into a sort of giga-provider of cable, internet, and phone services. Criticism of the deal has been fierce -- USAToday said cable companies "[earn] their reputations with rotten service," and the Washington Post intimated that regulatory power is the true motivator at work.
In fact, regulatory and fiscal motivations and implications dominate the debate. My take: Comcast was very happy to sink nearly $50 billion into a competitor without any mention of better service or products for customers.
In fact, this deal is an archrival of net neutrality, and may quite likely result in price hikes and stagnant innovation in DVR technologies. The Boy Genius Report said the deal could slow down a rumored partnership between Apple and Time Warner to create a set-top box that doesn't suck.
The press release issued by Comcast showed a comical lack of realism, claiming that the merger "will create a leading technology and innovation company, differentiated by its ability to deliver ground-breaking products on a superior network." A more realistic prediction comes from this BusinessWeek headline: "The Comcast Deal Won't Make a Terrible Industry Any Worse."
Comcast's public message communicates outright user condescension, suggesting that DVR technology has significantly improved in the last few years. The truth is that Comcast has failed to make cablecard-powered products like TiVo work any better. What's more, Comcast significantly blew the opportunity to say "we're going to merge these companies into one and make the best DVR and internet products known to man."
Recently, TiVo -- a company that had fallen into obscurity - received a wave of warm press from many major outlets for its Roamio HD digital video recorder. The New York Times said it "knew what television watchers wanted." At its core, the Roamio is literally what the Comcast/Time Warner DVR should be -- a fast, easy-to-use DVR, with plenty of space, plus TiVo's intelligent technology, which records things you'll like.
It's not even amazing -- it's simply the right product that works in the way that the cable companies' boxes don't. The catch? It still requires a cablecard -- a connection to the cable company's mothership that is remarkably unreliable thanks to the somewhat backward technology. This even led to The Verge (which called the Roamio The Ultimate Cable Box) to criticize TiVo for the cable companies' problems.
Swing And A Miss
TiVo's success -- and the criticism against this merger -- should have been an obvious opportunity for TWC and Comcast to create better technology. TiVo's market cap is, as of writing, around $1.58 billion -- 9.58% of the price of WhatsApp in its sale to Facebook. While their woes (and roll-out) would be far more expensive than that acquisition alone, this would have been a blunt statement: "We want to be a better company, provide better service, and make our DVR service better."
The cynicism around the cable TV industry (only stoked by the success of Netflix and HBO Go) provides a perfect opportunity for cable providers to step up. Comcast and TWC did not. Had they dedicated themselves to technology - perhaps through a gutsy move like an acquisition, or bringing forward technological minds to discuss how they actually intend to make cable worth paying for, people would admire this deal. Instead they chose to focus on regulatory spitballing -- talking in generalities and bombast about vague "innovation" that doesn't seem to exist in reality.
Heck, they should have just committed to making a better technology than cablecard.
TiVo is an obvious choice if only as it's a resurrected brand -- one that was last famous as part of a strange "Sex & The City" plot -- brought back through creating technology that did the right job. Had Comcast simply followed their lead -- or simply let them take the lead with the billions of dollars they clearly have -- they may have turned this into an incredible merger. Instead it will be yet another cynically-viewed business decision -- one that customers already dislike.