By Stephanie Mehta
In his first-ever keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show Tuesday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts seemed to be saying content is king. (Not what you'd expect from the nation's largest distributor of pay television.)
Roberts, who was joined by radio personality and "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest for part of his speech, told the Las Vegas audience Comcast (CMCSA) is embarking on a strategy to make a vast library of professionally produced video content available through its "on demand" channel. “Project Infinity plans to give consumers the best and most content they will find on demand anywhere -- more HD, more sports, more movies, kids’ programs and network TV,” Roberts said.
The announcement was a shot at satellite television operators DirecTV (DTV) and Echostar (SATS), which have been pledging to deliver 100 channels in high definition. (DirecTV says it now broadcasts some 85 national channels in high def.) Comcast doesn't offer as many so-called "linear" channels in high-definition, so it isn't surprising Roberts is touting new two-way technology that will enable it to deliver high-definition video programming on demand.
In addition, Roberts said the company was boosting its library of movies on demand (not necessarily all of them in HD).
Comcast also announced the launch of Fancast.com, a website aimed at helping consumers find, organize, view and even purchase video entertainment. The site is a sort of mash-up of entertainment database IMBD.com, online retailer Amazon, TVGuide and some of the fun, Web 2.0 apps one can find on Facebook.
One reason Roberts might be emphasizing content is because the distribution business is out of favor with investors right now. Comcast's stock is trading near its 52-week lows, as are the stocks of Charter Communications (CHTR) and Time Warner Cable (TWC), which, like Fortune, is controlled by Time Warner (TWX).
In a recent interview, Roberts explained how cable can keep rivals from the satellite and phone businesses at bay. Content was the last thing he mentioned, but clearly programming is not an afterthought. "We have to innovate, have an open architecture and interoperate between cable companies, and our customer service has got to continue to reach new levels of excellence," Roberts said. "We also have to have the most content, which we clearly do. Put together, we have a winning strategy."