Photographer: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Free ESPN in Dorm Rooms Gives Comcast Access to Future Customers

  • More than 100 schools sign up for cable giant’s online service
  • Comcast gains insight into habits of hard-to-reach generation

For two years, Northwestern University student Ben Pope and his friends have gathered in dorms, connected their laptops to TVs and computer monitors, and streamed multiple sports events at once.

While they were watching, so was Comcast Corp., using data from the online video service it markets on about 100 campuses to gain insights into young audiences who have so far eluded conventional pay-TV providers.

The largest U.S. cable-TV company is using the service to win over the next generation of subscribers, young adults who are more likely to watch YouTube or use their parents’ Netflix accounts. Students getting Xfinity on Campus can stream dozens of channels and movies to their phones and laptops. Most popular this spring were NBA playoffs, “SportsCenter,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “This is Us” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

“It’s ubiquitous,” said Pope, a junior majoring in journalism. “It’s the main way students watch television.”

Like other pay-TV companies, Philadelphia-based Comcast is trying to adapt to changing consumers habits and competition from new rivals that offer cheaper online TV service. The company, which had 22.5 million video customers as of midyear, expects to lose as many as 150,000 TV subscribers this quarter, due partly to more intense competition.

Comcast has sold traditional cable service to colleges for years. In 2014 it began selling an online TV service. Some schools declined because so much streaming puts too much strain on their wireless networks, according to Mike Gatzke, the company’s vice president for video subscription services.

Part of Tuition

Others, like Northwestern and the University of Notre Dame, agreed to include the online TV service as part of their tuition and housing, in effect giving laptop-carrying students a free cable service as part of their college experience.

In addition to the fees Comcast collects -- it won’t say how much or how many subscribers the service delivered -- the company gets an early chance to introduce itself to a captive audience of impressionable consumers and try to break their password-sharing habit. The cable giant also gets to see the viewing tastes of a TV-averse generation that’s coveted by advertisers.

“We get a direct window into what college students on campus watch,” Gatzke said in an interview.

That’s especially helpful as Comcast experiments with new offers. For instance, the company is looking to sell a sports-free TV package, but likely won’t bother advertising it to college students who watch a lot of sports, Gatzke said. Xfinity on Campus is similar to Comcast’s “digital starter package,” which costs $40 to $60 a month, has about 100 channels, including ESPN.

Tough Sell

Getting students to sign up hasn’t always been easy. At Notre Dame, only about a third have heard of the service, according to Sean McMahon, director of campus technology for the university’s student government, who surveyed 2,000 undergraduates at the school.

“If our tech department was offering free Netflix or free Hulu that would have spread like wildfire,” he said.

Nor is Comcast the only company making inroads at universities. Snapchat recently said it will start publishing the content of college newspapers on its app. Satellite TV provider Dish Network Corp. sells TV service through Campus Televideo, which offers web-based programming at about 400 campuses, according to its owner, Apogee. An online TV startup called Philo had deals with more 40 colleges in 2015.

At many colleges, Comcast designates “campus ambassadors” to spread awareness. Typically undergrads, they spend 10 to 15 hours a week handing out fliers, making announcements in class, signing up students and promoting the service on social media, according to an online job description confirmed by Comcast.

The company’s biggest challenge may be convincing college students to stop swapping passwords, which makes it harder to sign them up for service. A study by Parks Associates found that password-sharing cost the TV industry $500 million in 2015. On its website, Comcast advertises its college streaming service by telling students: “Mooch no more.”

For the company, the long-term goal is for students to become customers when they leave school, get jobs and can afford a cable bill that typically costs $85 a month or more.

“It’s very important for us to introduce our brand to these students because we want to sell services and build relationships with them when they leave campus,” Gatzke said.

Despite Comcast’s efforts, Pope, the Northwestern student, sees little need to pay for networks he doesn’t care about. He recently moved off campus and declined to pay for cable.

“There are still hundreds of channels we get that we don’t watch,” Pope said, adding he’d prefer to buy service directly from sports leagues. “It’s more economical.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.