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SMW '19: Comcast's Matt Smith Talks and B2B and D2C OTT

Read the complete transcript of this interview:

Tim Siglin: This is Tim Siglin, Contributing Editor with Streaming Media Magazine here at Streaming Media West 2019. Got Matt Smith with me from Comcast Technologies. And Matt and I were talking before we went live about what's it like to sit in front of a camera. And obviously, part of sitting in front of the camera is making sure that the person behind the camera cues you when you are actually live.

Matt Smith: Right.

Tim: So that you don't look like you don't know what you're doing.

Matt: A deer in the headlights, yes.

Tim: So, tell me about your experience being in front of a camera, 'cause if I remember correctly, you worked in live television early in your career.

Matt: I did, in fact, a lot of people in the industry may not know what you know in that many, many years ago, I don't mind saying, I was an on-camera television reporter. That's what I'm trained and studied in a beautiful part of the country where you live, in the Tri-Cities, Tennessee and Virginia. So started there, studied broadcast journalism. Was a real roll-up-my-sleeves kind of guy, and sought out the local TV stations, being a production assistant, and then eventually working on the assignment desk and then doing my own thing in reporting. In fact, I very vividly remember going to a physics class my junior year, and the seatmate next to me said, "Hey I saw you on the news last night."

Tim: Oh nice.

Matt: Yeah, that was me.

Tim: And you weren't there with a mugshot.

Matt: No I wasn't there with a mugshot. I was there covering some tax rate, millage rate-- that's probably boring--but again, it's that notion that I saw your face on TV. And, you know, what I tell people is there's an art to it and some of it can be taught. And it's knowing how to just keep crafting that narrative without a teleprompter. In news you have that, but being able to tell that story and stay consistent, kind of have that story spool in your head, there is a knack to it. And then there's next-level people who can really look at that camera and the viewer looks back at what they're seeing and really connects. I mean, your real, your network TV anchors and those kind of people who really make an art of it.

Tim: I remember Peter Jennings, obviously you have The Cronkhites and the like, and come forward to Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings. That was right around the time that people could buy the big satellite dishes. And the big satellite dishes gave you a raw feed, which meant it didn't cut at commercials. And people saw the chaos that went on in the news room between the time they cut to a commercial break and the time they came back.

Matt: Or the cigarette that got picked up.

Tim: Right, yeah, and put down. So, that's sort of an interesting segue into today. Today, we deliver across the internet, whether it's IPTV or over-the-top, live user-generated content. Have you been able to go back and reconnect with this generation and say to them, "Hey, here's how it was back then, but here's how it is similar today in the way that you might handle yourself on air."

Matt: In fact, my Lyft driver on the way here asked me where I was going, what I was doing. And I explained to him what I was doing. He says, "So what is streaming?" And from a layman's perspective, that was an interesting discussion explaining to him the difference in live and on-demand, and what a role compression takes. And he said, "Why do you compress things?" And so I had to explain how heavy, if you will, a live signal, or a mezzanine VOD asset is, what compression does, and then he has a moment, "Oh, you mean buffering. You know, when I couldn't watch it just a few years ago." I said "Exactly. So to get really nerdy, that's when we integrated adaptive bitrate technology and now you can watch HD in 4K, and so that you can, if you subscribe to Netflix or Prime, or Hulu, this is how we deliver the content to you." So it was a real quick, backseat lesson 101 on streaming technology.

Tim: Well, and given the drive from LAX to downtown L.A.

Matt: It was almost an hour.

Tim: Yeah, you got a little while to talk about that. So you've, of course, been in a number of startups in the industry, some of which have been acquired. You're now with a large company, Comcast. What is your focus at Comcast? What's Comcast's focus in the OTT space vs, say, the traditional cable space?

Matt: So I'm part of CTS, Comcast Technology Solutions. We take Comcast technology and offer it in a B2B fashion, so that our customers can use the same tools that syndicate the video-on-demand titles for a cable head-end. Or use the same channel acquisition, compression, delivery technologies for a cable heading can be used for an OTT sort of scenario. So it's all of the, what I jokingly call the plumbing. The mechanisms and the tools so that a brand can say, I'm gonna slap my name on this, I'm gonna offer a hundred channels, or I'm gonna offer this many titles in a D2C fashion. And we provide them with the soup-to-nuts stack that they need. Part of the core competency there, too is that we have these massive facilities that are delivering these channels to Comcast proper, and we can use a lot of that same infrastructure to deliver channels to customers who need-- with the right paperwork--access. Everything's, of course, legally taken care of, but so they can offer that same content to their audience in a different way.

Tim: Okay, interesting. So you mentioned the whole direct-to-consumer approach. Are there companies using your technologies to do what we would have called, traditionally business television or enterprise TV, where they're trying across their multi-national corporation to get the message out within the organization? Or is it all primarily sort of external focused D2C?

Matt: It's all primarily externally focused D2C. So it's all about, for us, it's that entertainment aspect. And generally our customers are of that ilk. We are seeing, especially in Europe, and we're hoping more in the U.S., more interest in sports. So live sports, whether it's pay-per-view, or whether it's new entrants with four letter acronyms that we can, again, put that plumbing together and say, "You've got most, if not all of what you need here. And if you've got some other things, layer 'em on top, but we can help you ship that product quickly."

Tim: And how much of your plumbing includes the CDN aspect of it versus going off and using an Akamai or a Limelight or somebody else like that?

Matt: Excellent question. So, and most people don't realize, Comcast has its own CDN. So throughout our footprint in the U.S., and I think it's between 30 and 40% of the country that we reach, we have CDN, so we can get content from that publisher directly to the home on that footprint. Now, obviously, since you don't reach the entirety of the U.S., you wanna augment that with a public CDN. So we've got that gracefully built together, so that we can leverage a Limelight, an Akamai, or other public CDNs and balance it appropriately, so that we're distributing that content with the right efficiency.

Tim: In that last mile where you have the CDN, where you have physical infrastructure, and a cable plant, are there peering points at multiple places around the country to these public CDNs? Or does it only go back to one or two main peering points?

Matt: There are, so there are multiple peering points across the country. I can't talk at length about it.

Tim: Yeah, sure, I understand.

Matt: As you would imagine, there are major brand name publishers who offer content where we may not process it, but they wanna get it to our viewers on footprint. So there's several lines of business, where we may be acquiring channel, processing content, using our CDN, or just offering the CDN and that pathway to the Comcast viewer.

Tim: Okay, got it. So look me out a year from now, not necessarily from a Comcast perspective, but the streaming industry as a whole. You've mentioned sports, and one of the things that I continue to hear from consumers is, boy, I'd cut the cord, if I could watch SEC-TV on my device. Are we at the point where sports unbundled from traditional cable subscriptions will be a reality in the not-too-distant future? I mean, I know we have some skinny bundles in the market, but like just pure individual sports channels?

Matt: It's a very good question. I'm not sure I'm an expert at it, but I'll offer a bit of an opinion.

Tim: Okay, that's what I'm looking for.

Matt: There have been many people who've said for years, "You just wait, the NFL's gonna go fully untethered and D2C with their product, and the NBA and these other leagues, too." And I think the reality is such that with the ratings that a lot of these leagues drive, and the revenue that they enable the broadcaster, the rights holder to develop, the amount of money is just so good that there's no... It doesn't make sense for them to tip the apple cart over.

Tim: Sure, sure, and yet, this was the model that HBO when they came 12 years ago to Streaming Media East and said we don't see a model that we would ever offer HBO streaming completely unbundled from cable subscription 'cause we don't wanna cannibalize the 90% of sales. And yet, three years later, they went off--

Matt: and there they are.

Tim: and there they were.

Matt: So while, I'll say that common sense and logic says it doesn't make sense, I won't say it's impossible. I mean, we're seeing entities like The Zone be very successful in Europe. They're coming to this market, or they're here already, they're trying to grow their presence. They're a great example of-- and I spoke about this in one of my panels today-- at Cable Congress I think last week. They made a lot of buzz, they said, "We're the Netflix of sports." That's a very bold statement, but hard to argue with their success. They've done really well so far. I'm of the--and you can appreciate this-- we've known each other a long time. I'm of the hot sports opinion that we've overemphasized cord-cutting. There are a multitude of places to go, buy content, and consume content today. And I think that's fine, I think it's a viable market. I don't think... I am not speaking ill of it, but I think the notion of us going here for this, and here for that, and there for this, and there for that, is eventually going to wear on people who would like to have things kind of in one place. And you and I talked about this before we went live. Maybe the curve comes back around, and in three to four to five years, you get this more conglomerated package of content maybe without the filler that you were used to with cable and it's trimmer and a little more amenable to you, and that's what you end up with.

Tim: Yeah, and ultimately that aggregating model makes perfect sense because, as you say, people get tired of not just having to pick and choose where their stuff is, but having to pay multiple bills that are staggered, and ultimately may cost more than what their cable subscription cost at any given point.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely.

Tim: Alright, Matt, as always, a good conversation. I always like picking your brain on that, and we'll be right back with our next interview.

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