SBJ/July 23-29, 2012/Olympics

Comcast authentication rates soar

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Early returns suggest that Comcast’s plans to authenticate the London Olympics — making sure the Games’ online feeds are available only to cable and satellite subscribers — will be the cable industry’s most successful verification process to date.

The company has been working for years to develop a system that allows its subscribers to have a seamless approval process that allows them to watch NBC’s Olympic coverage on their computers, tablets or mobile devices. The effort to develop a seamless process is more crucial this year since NBC plans to stream every Olympic event live on its website.

Signs are promising, at least for Comcast’s systems.

In the week leading up to the opening ceremony, Comcast was reporting a 90 percent success rate for authenticating its subscribers. That means that 90 percent of its subscribers who tried to authenticate (around 100,000 total) were successful, as of last week. Only 10 percent of the Comcast subscribers who tried to authenticate were not able to do it.

“That’s the highest we’ve ever seen with authentication,” said Matt Strauss, Comcast’s senior vice president of digital and emerging platforms.

Comcast’s 90 percent success rate for the Olympics so far is significantly higher than the cable operator’s previous authentication efforts around big events, such as Turner’s “March Madness on Demand.” It’s also higher than success rates around other authenticated streams, like WatchESPN and HBO Go.

Comcast’s early results are important for the entire cable industry, which has been trying to figure out how to keep control of its programming as it migrates online. Early authentication results from other cable operators are not known.

The cable industry’s early authentication efforts have been confusing and cumbersome. Many systems require consumers to take several steps and share personal information for verification. But Comcast has changed the process to the point that some of its subscribers are unaware that they’ve even been authenticated. Up to 75 percent of its authenticated subscribers completed the process in-home, where Comcast recognizes IP addresses. An action as simple as clicking on an Olympic link via NBCSports.com or Xfinity.com, after logging into a Comcast email account, can lead to authentication.

For Comcast, most problems have come from subscribers trying to log in from work. NBC Sports is allowing a one-time four-hour pass to people who have problems logging in.

The challenge for Comcast will be twofold. Not only will it try to keep the success rate high as the Olympics draw closer and more consumers try to watch online or via mobile devices, but the country’s biggest cable operator also needs to ensure that other cable and satellite operators are prepared to deal with the crush of people who will be trying to access Olympic video online over the next two weeks.

Each cable and satellite operator uses its own authentication system, and many do not have the experience Comcast has in testing such systems.

As an early supporter of TV Everywhere, the concept of streaming channels to more than one device, Comcast has been one of the earliest cable operators to test different authentication systems. Much of Strauss’ job for the past several months has been to share best practices that he’s learned with other cable operators, programmers and even some competitors.

“I’ve personally gotten on the phone with certain distributors — ones that you wouldn’t expect me to get on the phone with — to share some of what we’ve learned in an effort to have them take on some of those tactics themselves,” he said. “We’re not doing a victory lap if Comcast is at 90 percent and another distributor is at 20 percent.”

Speaking from Comcast Labs on the 35th floor of Comcast Center in Philadelphia last week, Strauss talked about the amount of time and effort the cable operator has been throwing behind authenticating NBC’s online coverage of the Olympics.

Strauss’ team of about 100 executives has been solely focused on working out authentication kinks for at least the past nine months. Comcast executives are in the middle of a “road show” to 22 call centers across the country to train technicians. Comcast plans to fully staff those call centers throughout the Games.

“We’re doing a full-court press to figure out all the different touch points in advance,” he said. “We have escalation plans in place with NBC and Adobe [which provides the Flash player to view video] if there’s issues to get them resolved. If there’s an issue with the authentication, we’ve got plans in place to get an answer within five minutes.”

While each operator and each programmer have their own process, what’s unique about the Olympics’ authentication process is the fact that Comcast and NBC’s sports media competitors seem to be rooting for the effort to be successful. It’s not often that ESPN and Turner will pull for an NBC Sports initiative to succeed. But the Olympics’ online success could mean a quicker adoption for TV Everywhere.

“Just like everyone else in the marketplace benefited from the big events that are on ESPN, we think we’re going to benefit more so from a big event that is fully authenticated, as opposed to one that creates confusion in the marketplace,” said Sean Bratches, ESPN’s executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Matt Hong, Turner Sports senior vice president and general manager of operations, agreed.

“Turner, ESPN, NBC and the [cable and satellite operators] are aligned on the strategy, which is a great thing to see,” he said. “We’re pushing for many of the same things.”

Comcast and NBC executives believe the London Games will be a defining moment for TV Everywhere. If subscribers have problems viewing a big event like the Olympics online, it could delay the process from taking hold.

“I think the London Olympics will be a watershed moment for TV Everywhere and verification — and a moment when multichannel distributors demonstrate their commitment to TV Everywhere by standing behind their promise to make that process as easy as possible,” said NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

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