Comcast Challenges Netflix, Goes After Latino Viewers

In the wake of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, much of the attention’s been on low-rated NBC’s efforts to right itself. But yesterday, the company made two big announcements about very different parts of its future. First, fulfilling some of the terms of the deal, Comcast said it’ll launch four new channels, two aimed at African-Americans (including one backed by Magic Johnson) and two at Latinos. And, investing in the technological future of viewership, the company said it’s starting a video-on-demand service that will include legacy television shows and movies.

Given the massive success of Univision, and the fact that the best networks seem to be able to offer Latino audiences is either Rob Schneider’s bumbling through the family his character married into on Rob or Sofia Vergara as a transplanted bombshell, it makes sense that someone would try to go more aggressively after that rapidly growing market sector. It’s hard to tell what El Rey, the first of those two channels, will offer: “a mix of reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy, and sports programming” isn’t exactly descriptive. But I do think it’s promising that the network’s saying out of the gate that they’ll hire Latino producers. You would think that would be a given for programming aimed at a Latino audience, but I don’t exactly take it for granted. And I think that “BabyFirst Americas,” which is a truly terrible network name, could actually find an audience in households where the first language is English. Bilingual education is going to be a lot more important in the future, and quality programming for children in Spanish could be a great educational tool for parents who want their kids growing up with multiple languages no matter which one they themselves speak.

I tend to think the African-American focused networks are a bit less significant, if only because the networks made a strategic decision to abandon black audiences a long time ago, and BET, TVOne, and VH1 have been trying to pick up that lost audience ever since. That said, I’m at least mildly interested to see what the folks behind REVOLT mean by this: “REVOLT will be live, like all great moments in television history. REVOLT will also be immediate, like today’s social networks,” because it’s so goofily futuristic. I’d be more compelled if the marketing material said something about building out mobile-friendly products, given the role that mobile plays in bridging the digital divide. But we’re a couple years out from seeing what they develop.

And speaking of digital, the bigger news for Comcast is probably the announcement that it’s building a Video on Demand service to challenge Netflix. They’re not just pulling in content from the NBCUniversal family, which makes it a somewhat more aggressive move than HBO and Showtime’s construction of separate, Netflix-like portals for their shows and movies. Those investments by individual channels could be interpreted as negotiating moves to show Netflix they’re willing to hold out, or attempts to preserve the sense that their content is ultra-premium. But Comcast seems like they’re trying to provide a genuine alternative, even if the content library they’re starting out with is relatively small. But given that Netflix is in the process of renegotiating contracts, and has had to pay higher fees to reup, there could be room for a company with a serious cash library to stock up fast. And a streaming or VOD service could provide an alternative way to keep alive low-rated but passionately-loved shows like Community that might not be earning their spot in a network lineup, but could draw subscribers to a streaming service.