Heaven help me; I'm about to defend Comcast.
Like most tech pundits, my first reaction to the forthcoming Comcast Stream online video service was to laugh. While the package of streaming HBO, broadcast channels, and Streampix video sounds reasonable at $15 per month, it's lousy with restrictions that seem designed to uphold the status quo.
For instance, live streams won't be available on connected TV devices such as Roku and Apple TV, nor will they work outside the house. Comcast has also deluded itself into thinking the new streaming plan will lure people back to expensive bundles, which makes this whole endeavor seem even more comical.
But the more I think about it, the more defensible Comcast's plan seems. At worst, Comcast Stream is a standalone HBO subscription with extra features at no extra charge. At best, it's a slow step towards undoing everything that makes cable TV so repugnant in the first place.
HBO with benefits
Putting aside the bizarre restrictions--which Comcast is apparently hoping to lift over time--Comcast Stream is a better deal than HBO Now, the much-ballyhooed standalone streaming version of HBO that launched a few months ago.
Both services cost $15 per month and offer full access to HBO's on-demand catalog on phones, tablets, computers, and connected TVs. But while standalone HBO subscribers must use the HBO Now app, Comcast subscribers can use HBO Go, a separate app designed for cable subscribers. The apps are functionally identical, but HBO Go currently works on a wider range of devices, including Xbox consoles and Roku streamers. Comcast Stream also offers a live HBO feed through phones and tablets, where HBO Now has no live feed at all.
In this light, Comcast Stream's other features are just icing. Broadcast channels are nice to have if you don't get good antenna coverage, even with the restrictions on TV and out-of-home viewing. Comcast's Streampix movie service is forgettable on its own, but it could be a fine bonus for people who signed up primarily to get HBO.
Subscribers can also use on-demand network apps such as Watch ABC and Fox Now to work around Comcast's restrictions. Those apps include full episodes of TV shows the day after they air, even on set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Fire TV, and Roku.
Again, all of this is for the same price as HBO alone, so it's hard to argue that Comcast Stream is a bad deal unless you also believe HBO Now is a royal rip-off.
Goodbye, legacy cable TV
As some in the tech press have pointed out, Comcast Stream doesn't seem as cheap as Comcast's existing TV + Broadband package, which includes HBO, broadcast channels, and Internet. As Recode notes, Comcast sells that bundle for $45 per month in its home market of Philadelphia, while broadband plus Stream would cost $82 per month in that same market.
But this comparison misses an important point about Comcast Stream: Unlike the company's traditional bundles, Stream is apparently free of hidden fees, sneaky teaser rates, and outrageous hardware rental costs.
When you look at the fine print, Comcast's TV + Broadband package actually costs $58.50 per month with an HD set-top box and broadcast TV fees. After one year, the price jumps by $20 per month, and by another $5 to $10 per month the year after that. Stream ends up costing about the same price, but with DVR service included.
Taking a different angle
If we look at the big picture, Comcast seems to have realized what's wrong with cable TV. It's not just the idea of paying for hundreds of channels you don't want, but the underhanded sales tactics, the clunky hardware, and the exhausting song-and-dance of figuring out what your monthly bill will actually be. An entire generation of TV watchers is growing up outside of this twisted system through streaming alternatives such as Netflix and YouTube. The best way for Comcast to reach them now is to start from scratch.
Perhaps this is overly optimistic, but Stream could be the start of a new kind of cable-TV service. Comcast has already talked about adding optional channel packages and letting users swap HBO for a different premium channel. It's not hard to imagine a cable-like service arising with greater flexibility and up-front pricing, based on the idea that you provide your own hardware. This won't appease the hardcore a la carte crowd, but it would be far better than the system that exists now.
To be clear, Comcast Stream hasn't even launched yet--it'll hit Boston later this summer, followed by Seattle and Chicago; it won't reach all of Comcast's markets until 2016--and there are endless ways in which Comcast could screw it up. (The use of a "managed network" for Stream videos, for instance, seems like exactly the type of thing net neutrality rules are supposed to prevent.)
Still, I'm not cynical enough to think a cable company can never redeem itself. Comcast's problem was that it never had any motivation to do so thanks to years of cushy duopoly status. But with competition rising all around it on the video front, this could be Comcast's best chance at a clean slate.