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Comcast is looking to enter the smart TV wars

The TV giant wants to license its set-top box operating system to TV manufacturers.

Comcast is looking to enter the smart TV wars

At the center of these discussions has been Comcast's X1 platform, which the company built as an operating system for its own set-top boxes over the past decade.

Photo: Comcast

Comcast wants to turn the software running on its set-top boxes into an operating system for smart TVs, Protocol has learned from multiple industry insiders with knowledge of the company's plans.

The company began pitching TV manufacturers on the idea in recent months and had some conversations on the subject at CES in January. It's unclear how far these talks have progressed, but the push underlines the growing importance of smart TVs as a major platform for the future of entertainment.

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A Comcast spokesperson declined to comment.

At the center of these discussions has been Comcast's X1 platform, which the company built as an operating system for its own set-top boxes over the past decade. In addition to running on the company's cable boxes, X1 also powers Flex, the Roku-like streaming hardware launched by Comcast last year. Comcast has also for some time pitched X1 to fellow cable operators. Cox, for instance, runs X1 hardware and software under its Contour brand, and Charter executives have publicly acknowledged that the two companies have been negotiating a similar licensing deal.

However, operators like Cox effectively just license and ship white-labeled Comcast hardware. The company's talks with TV makers go a lot further, and would result in X1 running on third-party devices. It would also be the first time that X1 runs directly on a smart TV.

Smart TVs are an attractive target for Comcast for a number of reasons: Like all cable companies, Comcast has been bleeding subscribers. During the first six months of 2020 alone, 815,000 of its customers cut the cord. This year, Comcast made some major moves to target these cord cutters with its own streaming services. The company launched Peacock, its own paid streaming service, last month. And in February, it acquired Xumo, a free streaming service that targets cord cutters with a cable-like TV experience.

However, Comcast's efforts to grow these services have been hampered by conflicts with a new crop of gatekeepers: Peacock's apps are still not available on Roku or Amazon streaming devices, or on smart TVs running Roku's and Amazon's operating systems. TVs that have Comcast's X1 system built-in could put the company's own streaming services front and center, while also increasing Comcast's leverage in negotiations with competitors like Roku and Amazon.

Comcast began building X1 at its Silicon Valley Innovation Lab under the code name "Xcalibur" around a decade ago, and it launched the first set-top box running the platform in 2012. Originally built for its own TV service, X1 has since expanded to run third-party streaming apps from services like Netflix and YouTube.

In September of last year, Comcast acquired Metrological, a company that has been working on bridging the gap between cable operator platforms and streaming apps. Industry insiders told Protocol that Metrological would likely play a major role in getting X1 to work on smart TVs as well.

Even with all the pieces in place, it's unclear whether Comcast will actually succeed in persuading TV makers to adopt its platform. The smart TV OS market has been fiercely competitive, with Roku, Amazon and Google all pitching their software to a small group of manufacturers. Breaking into that world is not an easy feat.

Case in point: Samsung, which runs its own Tizen-based OS on its smart TVs, announced a year ago that it was looking to license the system to its competitors as well. The company has yet to announce any deals with fellow TV manufacturers.

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