In a fight for tomorrow’s viewers, Comcast heads back to school

Comcast's Xfinity On Campus is a cable service tailored for  for  college students. A pilot version launched two years ago at seven schools nationwide. This year

Comcast's Xfinity On Campus is a cable service tailored for for college students. A pilot version launched two years ago at seven schools nationwide. This year

The television set used to be a staple of college dorm room decor — right alongside futons and Bob Marley posters.

But with more and more millennials watching TV on tablets and laptops, campus cable providers have been forced to adapt.

Philly-based cable giant Comcast is trying to lead that charge, and preserve its larger business model in the process.

To that end Comcast has introduced Xfinity On Campus, a cable service tailored to the wants and desires of the modern college student. A pilot version launched two years ago at seven schools nationwide. This year 63 have the service, including seven in the Delaware Valley.

The students on those 63 campuses represent a tiny fraction of Comcast customers, but the company’s approach toward wooing them is a sign of how Comcast hopes to surmount the challenges presented by changing consumer habits.

“College students are important to any market,” said Frank Purcell, Comcast’s senior director of product marketing for the Philadelphia region. “And we can certainly acknowledge that the way people consume video content is changing dramatically right now.”

Xfinity on Campus is like your regular cable campus hook up with a few major twists. First, it allows students to stream live television on their laptop or mobile service. It also allows students to access certain programs on-demand. Finally, it comes with a cloud-based DVR that can store up to 20 hours of programming.

Perhaps most important of all, the service is free — or at least it doesn’t cost students any extra money to sign up. When colleges contract with Comcast for residential cable services, its students are eligible to sign up for Xfinity on Campus. The cost of the entire package is rolled into students’ residential and activity fees, much the same way a traditional cable service would.

Essentially as soon as students step on to campus at Temple, Drexel, West Chester, Penn, Delaware, Rider, or Villanova they can sign up for Xfinity on Campus. Comcast has plopped their streaming platform right into these students’ laps. Now it just needs them to use it.

“The best that Comcast is making here is that they can get [students] hooked on television so that when they leave college they subscribe,” said Colin Dixon, an industry analyst and founder of the research firm nScreen.

The company has a hard road ahead

Millennials are watching less and less live television. The pattern is particularly pronounced among 18- to 34-year-olds who  live on their own, a category that into which many recent college graduates fit. That’s a looming problem for Comcast, which built its media empire on pay-service television. The question it now must ask itself:  How do we get our brand in front of tomorrow’s media customer?

“It really is critical for Comcast’s long-term future to create a relationship with [millennials] as early as you can,” said Michael Goodman, an industry analyst at the firm Strategy Analytics.

Companies have long had a keen interest in wooing college students. Not only are they young and just starting to form their purchasing habits, they have big earning potential once they leave school. Legacy cable providers are doubly motivated to capture college students because so many are flocking to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.

“They’re trying to get television front and center with them again,” said Dixon.”And they’ve got a pretty good product to do it with.”

It’s hard to say at this point whether students are actually ditching more established streaming service brands for Comcast’s version.

Clearly colleges believe the service will appeal to their students, as evidence by the 63 that have already signed on. Comcast wouldn’t say what percentage of eligible students have used the streaming platform or release any data on how much time those students spend using it. A spokesperson would only say “the service is being very well received.”

Michele Kane, assistant director in residence life and housing at the University of Delaware, estimates “a couple thousand” students on her campus have enrolled in Xfinity on Campus and use it actively. Delaware was among the seven schools nationally that piloted the service two years ago.

The streaming platform helped convince the university to contract with Comcast, said Kane. But it was only the cherry on top. The university was more focused on finding a provider that could give students broader access to live sports, particularly local teams.

“That was one of the key factors for us,” said Kane. “And that is one of the things students are still watching live.”

Comcast also has to contend with all of the non-television content young people are devouring, such as YouTube videos. The media giant hopes to elbow into that space with a service called Watchable that curates online content.

Indeed Comcast is facing two dilemmas: How to get its brand in front of young people who are watching television in new ways and how to get its brand in front of young people who aren’t watching television at all.

Xfinity on Campus addresses the first, but it is merely one strategy in a critical fight for the next generation of watchers. 

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