Comcast COO Steve Burke wants to battle DirecTV on a new front: He wants co-production deals like the satellite company's arrangement for NBC's Friday Night Lights.
When DirecTV agreed to pony up $12 million to give its subscribers first crack at the third season of NBC's ratings-challenged drama, the deal raised eyebrows for its novelty. But it turns out that DirecTV wasn't the only player vying for it.
Cable market leader Comcast was also bidding on Friday Night Lights. The Philadelphia-based company was looking to add the show to its VOD platform and was partnering with Time Warner's events and sports provider iN Demand on the idea.
The satellite company won the rights to air the show exclusively in the fall, but Burke says he is looking for similar programming opportunities, and next time he may not enlist other cable partners.
“We could have always done it on our own,” Burke adds, though he noted the company's footprint reaches only about one-third of the U.S. “I think maybe the next one that comes down the pike, we might be more aggressive.”
Comcast has been approached more than once about picking up series that were being cut loose by networks, such as CBS Paramount's Swingtown. While the show eventually went to Bravo in a straight rerun deal, Comcast was one company approached to try to keep the show in originals, a la Friday Night Lights.
Exclusive content is an important weapon in the fight between satellite and cable for subscribers. And cable has been vigorous in pursuing licensing deals that will help entice consumers bombarded by home-entertainment choices.
“We have been aggressive about getting content for the VOD platform, which satellite doesn't have,” Burke says. “When Friday Night Lights became available, we thought it would be a very attractive thing to have on-demand.” An iN Demand representative declined to discuss deal points.
The series was an attractive property, Burke explains, because it has a loyal, if small, audience. And NBC was still shouldering the bulk of the production costs.
Ultimately, Comcast was unwilling to shell out what DirecTV did to acquire FNL, a deal that puts the show on DirecTV four months before it bows on NBC.
“We talked about having it on VOD and the Internet,” Burke says. “But at the end of the day, DirecTV was willing to pay more. We're very interested as a company and as an industry in future product that becomes available for the VOD platform.”
Producers and networks are sure to see more instances of cable operators hunting to partner on series that need co-production money to stay in business.
“The notion of windows that are advantageous for our customers is something we will remain interested in,” Burke says.
But Burke notes that Comcast is not ready to be in the production business on its own. “You have to look at each property and say, is the benefit of this greater or less than the cost,” he reasons.
Expect cable to keep tinkering with new models. Cable providers are working to retain their subscriber supremacy in a fragmented market that has seen significant satellite growth. Comcast has 24.6 million subscribers, while No. 2 Time Warner has almost 15 million.
On-demand platforms are an important selling point for viewers who are increasingly watching television on their own schedule, whether it's via VOD or DVR.
On DirecTV, which has 17.1 million subs, Friday Night Lights is available Wednesday at 9 p.m. on The 101, a channel dedicated to original programming. The show repeats on Fridays.
FNL's audience on DirecTV has been less than half a million viewers compared to 6 million who watched it last season on NBC. But the show's third-season premiere on The 101 ranked in the top 10 among all basic cable on DirecTV.