Comcast CEO Brian Roberts: Do you even believe the nonsense you are saying?

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 13, 2012

From The News Desk

Wow. Comcast is either utterly unaware of what good software actually is, or it has intentionally been making bad software for years and is about to pull a stunning 180. Astoundingly, I think the latter is more likely. Well, without the 180 part.

Geoff Colvin has a fawning interview with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts in this month's Fortune. If anyone believes a word of what Roberts is selling, please contact me. I have a bridge to sell you.

In an answer to a question on why watching TV has become so complicated, rather than blame his own company, Roberts said:

Everything we could learn from what Apple (AAPL) has done so well is how to take really complicated things and make them simple, make them fun, make them beautiful and easy. As I think about where I'd like to see us go, it is absolutely to take this overwhelming amount of content choices -- now with the Internet so many more choices -- and make them personalized, make them easy to interact with and have anytime on any device.
The key to that "Apple-like" experience is a tight fusion of hardware and software and drop dead ease of use. For those outside its markets, Comcast has hands down the worst software that I use in my daily life. That's saying something.

We were longtime TiVo users but when we upgraded (belatedly) to a new high definition TV, we finally opted for the Comcast box over paying hundreds of dollars for a new HD TiVo. Nearly a year later, our media consumption habits have changed dramatically. We went from a family that only watched shows off of a DVR to one that almost never does. Why? The software is just so awful.

I've used Cox and TimeWarner's DVR software, and it's nowhere near as bad as Comcast's. There is an awful UI that makes scheduling and discovering shows way harder, but it's well beyond just that. Functionally, it has constant glitches. Shows routinely get deleted or only tape for a minute. You hit record, and nothing will happen for 10 minutes.

In fact, the experience is so bad, it almost seems intentionally so. I have wondered several times over the past year, whether Comcast has made its DVR so lousy on purpose to change people's habits. Indeed, their shitty software has been a boon for other parts of the company: We watch way more TV in real time, or watch almost all of it on demand. We pay for movies, where we might TiVo them from movie channels before. And we signed up for StreamPix -- a subscription product to get more movies and shows On Demand.

But it's not all good for Comcast: We've also cancelled our movie channels and rely more on Amazon Prime and Netflix streaming as well.

I first started to wonder about Comcast's intentions during our PandoMonthly with Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett last summer. He talked about the need for television to get beyond the DVR phase and get consumers watching more on demand -- where the commercial experience can be controlled and fast forwarding of commercials can actually be disabled. I realized in my own house, that's essentially what Comcast has done.

Don't get me wrong, Comcast doesn't exactly excel with its On Demand software either. You can only pause a program for so long before it reverts to a previous screen, with ads shouting at you. And there's no one-click way to resume programming. In general there's lousy navigation between categories, with it taking 20 or 30 clicks to get to something you know you want to watch. But unlike the Comcast DVR, it has basic working functionality.

Here's the other thing that made me think it's intentional, or at least intentionally neglected: Comcast isn't a technology Luddite like Time Warner, which recently mused that it didn't think customers wanted faster broadband. Comcast is probably the most tech-savvy of the ISP world. It has a decently regarded venture arm for a company like this and has acquired some savvy talent in companies such as Plaxo and DailyCandy. It was one of the first utilities to start reaching out to disgruntled customers on Twitter with its "ComcastCares" account (launched after the American Consumer Satisifaction Index rated Comcast the single worst company at customer service in the country, including the IRS).

And back in 2005, it experimented with putting TiVo software in its set top boxes. That only started to actually roll out to any real customers this year. It clearly knew the software was superior, and it's clearly dragged its heels while customers have become used to cheaper DVRs. If it really wanted an "Apple-like" experience, it would have gone in that direction aggressively back in 2005.

Furthermore, despite glimmers of hope that they get it, Comcast has continually sparred with technology giants when it's in its own self-interest, whether it was on issues like metering broadband or net neutrality. It's invested more than anyone else in lobbying against consumers being able to pay for cable via an "a la carte" menu. Yeah, it sure sounds like you want people to consume media the way they want to.

Unless Comcast is about to dramatically change, Roberts either doesn't know software, doesn't know where consumers want their living rooms to go, or is being completely disingenuous in his comments.

He says in the article, "We're no longer a cable company or a broadcaster." Well that's funny, because your revenues say something quite different. As Colvin notes, Comcast is America's biggest media company with more revenue and a higher market cap than Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, or any competitor. That also means it has the most to lose from the living room truly getting disrupted. It doesn't just control your cable. It's the owner of NBCUniversal, the largest residential Internet supplier, and the third largest phone company in the country.

Media and technology are at loggerheads when it comes to the living room, and Comcast is clearly on the media side of things.

Most of the very things consumers want in entertainment these days would hurt Comcast in one way or another. And we should believe they'll be the ones to usher that wave in? If you believe that, you might also believe this quote about how being older and bigger somehow makes Comcast more innovative:

We've got a real entrepreneurial culture, and I think it comes from the roots of the company, being family-oriented, feeling like we're the underdog. As we've gotten larger, how do we use that size to innovate and go faster, not slower, and take more risks, not less risk? Those are counterintuitive as you get bigger. That's my job, to keep the culture feeling feisty -- paranoid, as Andy Grove said.
Someone please get Roberts a dictionary for Christmas. Your company was started in the 1960s, and that family is no longer in charge. The fact that Comcast was once a startup does not make it "entrepreneurial" decades later. Every company was a startup at some point. Also, when you're larger than Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, or any other competitor, you're not an "underdog." You are the incumbent. Also, bigger things don't move faster in nature or the corporate world. Unless, of course, they are moving downhill.

I'm counting on my living room transformation coming from Netflix, Amazon, Apple, some startup, or even Google before it comes from the company with the most to lose if the status quo changes.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]