Comcast is reported to be accumulating rights to offer channels nationwide. Comcast has acquired rights through clauses in existing contracts or as part of broader carriage negotiations with programming providers. Even if it does not market a nationwide service, the cable company needs to be able compete with the flexibility offered by online services.
Comcast already controls NBCUniversal, but long-term deals with ABC and CBS would need to be renewed. Given its scale, Comcast should be in a strong position to extend current contracts.
This could enable Comcast to offer services in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, which are outside the cable footprint of its existing franchises.
As television and video services move to delivery over internet protocols, there is no technical reason to be constrained to an existing cable franchise footprint. In theory, services could even be delivered over the cable networks of other service providers. Comcast also has its eye on wireless services.
So far, it seems, Comcast is not planning to offer a nationwide video service, as it sees selling bundled services into its existing franchise areas as more profitable, rather than offering lower margin services elsewhere.
Comcast returned to growth in 2016, adding 161,000 subscribers over the year, its first video gains in a decade.
However, with intense competitive pressure on pay-television services there is limited room for further growth. The top ten service providers lost 168,000 subscribers between them in the last quarter of 2016.
The largest cable company in the United States, with 22.51 million television customers, may be hedging its bets as competitors offer national services.
Satellite services are inherently national and online services can be delivered anywhere, over the top of any high-speed network.
DIRECTV, with 21.01 million subscribers, is now part of AT&T, and launched an online service DIRECTV Now in November, drawing over 200,000 subscribers by the end of the year.
DISH Network, with a total of 13.67 million subscribers, launched its Sling TV online service in early 2015 and is understood to have around 1.2 million subscribers.
Hulu and YouTube are also both preparing to launch national online television services, and other online video services like Sony PlayStation Vue, Netflix and Amazon are already available nationwide.
Even if it does not market to customers outside its cable footprint, Comcast may wish to offer its services on a more flexible basis. Its XFINITY platform is network based, meaning that it could be offered over any network connection. Comcast is already testing the use of Roku devices in addition to its cable boxes.
The concept that television and video services are tied directly to cable infrastructure and franchise footprints already appears to be an outmoded anomoly. The real advantage that cable companies have is in offering network connectivity that can be used to deliver a range of services.
The informitv Multiscreen Index shows that the top ten service providers in the United States have 88.69 million television customers between them, which is one and half million more than they had a year previously.
Given that there are approximately 100 million pay television households in the United States, that leaves over 10 million homes that subscribe to services from other operators, including numerous smaller providers.
These smaller providers could potentially benefit from a national television and video offering backed by the largest cable company in the country. In the longer term, further consolidation seems inevitable.