Comcast agrees, the X1 TV box has to have iHeart radio

Name that Tune: iHeartRadio channels tuned on Xfinity X1 consoles and TVs take the mystery out of "who's that singing?"

What’s the next big thing coming to your Comcast-connected TV?

Radio.

More precisely, commercial channels aligned with iHeartMedia, the largest radio broadcast group in the country.

On Wednesday, Comcast extended a big bear hug to iHeart, announcing a partnership that will bring a deluge of new audio content to millions of Comcast’s X1 set-top boxes – starting “in the coming weeks” with more than 1,000 iHeart-owned and affiliated stations.

At the same time, a legal ruling this week has forced Comcast to disable the X1 set top box’s ability to remotely schedule, modify or cancel a recording. On Tuesday the International Trade Commission agreed with a complaint by the firm Rovi that this Xfinity X1 feature set infringes on a patent issued initially to TiVo, now a Rovi unit. “We respectfully disagree with the ITC’s decision,” said a Comcast statement. “We have removed this feature from those offered to our subscribers while we pursue an appeal.”

This new embrace with IHeart furthers Comcast’s ambitions of making the X1 platform “the go-to destination” at home for accessing favorite content, said Nancy Spears, Vice President, Digital Media Distribution and Monetization.

iHeartRadio will pop up in the X1 app menu’s entertainment section, where Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Horsham-based Music Choice’s themed channels, and on-demand karaoke song provider Stingray are already hanging out.

Besides on-screen guide access, X1 customers will be able to tune radio content with voice commands murmured into smart remote controls, starting with simple requests to “listen to iHeartRadio,” which should restore a prior channel selected in the iHeart app.

Over time, X1 searches will get smarter, said Comcast, responding to commands to access stations and shows like “New York’s Z100 on iHeartRadio” or “listen to Elvis Duran on iHeartRadio.”

The new deal also underscores iHeartMedia’s priorities to reconnect with listeners who’ve shifted to Sirius/XM satellite radio, streaming music services and podcasts. While iHeart is by far the biggest radio group in the land, with a monthly “reach” of more than 250 million listeners, it’s also the most financially leveraged  — with over $20 billion in debt and restructuring or bankruptcy looming as possibilities, the company has warned.

With prior pushes onto platforms such as mobile phones, video-game systems, social media and smart speakers (including the voice-activated Amazon Echo, Google Home and new Sonos One), iHeart claims to be “the fastest growing digital audio service in the U.S” with “thousands of live radio stations, personalized custom artist stations created by just one song or seed artist and the top podcasts and personalities.”

Over time, more of that customized content will pop up  — and be voice searchable — on X1, including the likes of a newly launched “Taylor Swift reputation Radio” and playlists synched to the just announced Grammy nominations.

Given the voice command option, Xfinity X1 customers should be able to enjoy radio content without turning on their TVs, so long as a separate audio line links the set top box to a sound rig or powered speakers, Comcast confirmed. When going that route, though, you’ll lose access to useful on-screen information — like  artist name and song title and album art — “pulled” from iHeart’s metadata.

Comcast is still missing a beat, though, in not offering one-command “multi-room” play of streaming radio/music services. Such an “instant party-house” enhancement was recently introduced by satellite TV rival Dish network in collaboration with the DTS-owned Play-Fi platform. Dish users can multicast music from and to multiple Hopper and Joey receivers (and connected sound makers) and also to compatible Play-Fi-adept smart speakers from brands such as Polk, Klipsch, and Definitive Technology.