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Comcast Sells Its Own Cord-Cutting Service -- Which Requires Comcast's Cord

Broadcast TV + HBO, on the Web, for $15 a month. But you might be better off paying for cable TV anyway.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

There are a bunch of people who will let you buy TV, delivered over the Web, without paying the cable guy. Now the cable guy wants to sell you Web TV, too.

Comcast says it is now competing, sort of, with HBO, Showtime, Sony and Dish’s Sling TV, all of which will sell you at least one cable TV channel delivered over the Web. Comcast’s version is called Stream, and it will deliver all of the broadcast networks, plus HBO, for $15 a month.

That’s the same price HBO charges for its HBO Now service, which only delivers HBO over the Web.

Is there a catch? Yup. For now, Comcast only plans on selling the service to the 23 million people who get broadband service from Comcast.* Which means that Comcast’s cord-cutting TV service only works if you don’t cut Comcast’s cord.

This is true of every other Web TV service as well. None of them work unless you get broadband Internet, which means you need to pay Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon or another broadband provider. (If you’re lucky, you may have more than one choice — but you probably won’t be lucky.)

The difference is that Comcast is, so far, the only broadband provider providing its own Web TV service (Verizon should have one this year), and the only one selling a Web TV service tied to a specific provider. It’s not a coincidence that Comcast’s version has the most aggressive pricing, since it can afford to subsidize the cost of programming with the big profits from its broadband business.

TV executives have been waiting for Comcast to sell a Web TV service that would work out of its “footprint” — which means it would be available to anyone in the U.S. with a broadband connection.

But this is a much more modest offering, aimed at a subset of Comcast’s customer base. Earlier this year Comcast officially became a broadband provider that also sells TV, but it sells both to the vast majority of its customers.

It’s interesting to think about what Comcast is trying to accomplish here: It’s possible that it wants to step in before Sling, or HBO, or eventually Apple, gain significant traction with their own online-only offerings. But you might also conclude that Comcast is really trying to make old-fashioned TV more attractive to cord-cutters.

How’s that? Here’s some quick math: Comcast sells Internet at different prices in different markets, but right now a basic broadband-only subscription in its home market of Philadelphia is $67 a month. Add in the cost of Stream and you’re up to $82 a month. But Comcast sells a basic TV + Broadband package, including HBO, for $45 a month.

You will want to read the fine print when you compare the two offers.** But you might reasonably conclude that Comcast would still rather sell you cable TV than Web TV.

It’s an open question whether consumers want to pay for so-called “skinny bundles” of TV. Last fall Comcast said sales of its own low-cost bundles had declined. But industry executives say Dish’s Sling, which offers a dozen-plus channels over the Web, has quickly built a respectable business this year, with at least 250,000 subscribers. And for now, conventional TV industry wisdom is that skinny bundles will gain enough traction to cause real problems for the networks that don’t make it into the bundles.

At the very least, the fact that Comcast is offering this at all shows how quickly perception, at least, has shifted in the TV industry.

Only a few years ago, TV executives were arguing that there simply wasn’t a market of people who wanted to watch TV but didn’t want to pay for cable. Now they’re lining up to sell stuff to the once-phantom market.

* Comcast says it will test Stream in Boston this summer, Chicago and Seattle after that, and then expand to all of its markets in 2016.

** Comcast’s broadband-only package, for instance, includes a cloud-based DVR with fewer restrictions than the one conventional Comcast TV subscribers use. On the other hand, the Comcast subscribers who get a TV+Internet package can watch their shows, using a cable box, on their TV sets. Comcast broadband-only subs can’t get shows to their TVs without doing workarounds.

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