Tuesday, September 10, 2013

AOL and the Future of Comcast

Bradley Maule of Philly Skyline is back, now writing for Hidden City Philadelphia. With him come the memories of a Philadelphia circa 2005 when everyday we'd eagerly turn to his own website, Philly.com, Brownstoner, or Inga Saffron's Blogger page, anticipating the seemingly daily proposals for new skyline changing high rises.

Maule has ignited speculation that Comcast and Liberty Property Trust have revisited plans for 18th Street, possibly employing London's Foster + Partners, responsible for 30 Saint Mary's Axe and Hong Kong's HSBC Building, among many other modern marvels.

Liberty Property Trust owns both sites on 18th Street between JFK and Arch, formerly the proposed sites of the American Commerce Center and Comcast's annex mirroring Suburban Station. For now, this seems to amount to little more than speculation stemming from Liberty's ownership and Comcast's impressive cover letter.

While Comcast has seen record growth, particularly since it's acquisition of NBCUniversal two years ago, many are questioning the cable (now media) giant's viability in a variety of industries already experiencing massive technological shifts.

There's no doubt that Comcast has the money to employ Foster + Partners and the blind ambition to set a few more local construction records. But their corporate business model may be primed to go the way of AOL.

"What's that, Wes? You're crazy." said everyone.

Well, first of all, AOL is far from dead. It exists as a collection of media outlets that you likely don't realize you visit all the time. But as a visible force in the technological realm, it is no longer a unified entity to be reckoned with.

The company that once dominated internet technology was forced into decades of "right sizing" when the industry they owned - dial up and highly proprietary internet access - disappeared over night.

Once poised to introduce us to the future of the internet and media, AOL was experimenting with dozens of new technologies and integrated media only coming to fruition today.

Before companies like Google took the reigns by releasing new, experimental technology, even risking the release of hackneyed ideas like Google Glass, AOL played it safe, put AOLTV in the closet, and chose a speculative business model despite their proven technological merit, and continued to buy, buy, buy.

AOL grew to the point that shareholders usurped the roles of internet revolutionaries and the company that put the world online from a garage in suburban Honolulu became synonymous with Oldsmobile.

Now is it sounding more familiar?

Comcast is still largely rooted in cable and it's recent investments are in traditional media. Like AOL customers who began peeking outside their Buddy Lists and Chat Rooms to explore what the world wide web had to offer, Comcast customers are exploring a vast world of media outside the confines of their cable boxes.

While Comcast continues to push bundles, forcing customers to purchase networks peddling Babies Having Babies and HSN just to get NBC and Fox (and still pushing landline service as something marketable), younger consumers are opting out of traditional television for internet entertainment.

Comcast seems to think their customers won't find anything they like, and likely thinks it shouldn't matter. After all, it's hard to access the internet without Comcast, especially in Philadelphia, right?


Technology and access to interactive media seems to be changing too fast for the dinosaurs at 18th and JFK to grasp. In fact, it's changing too fast for many of us over thirty-five. Not only is a younger generation watching their television shows without a television, they're accessing the internet and all it offers without a computer. And that's where Comcast's reign begins to falter.

While many interact with media on smart phones and tablets, accessed through Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, the media their accessing is even less traditional, and often less corporatized.

Comcast seems to think its ace in the hole is in their acquisitions of mainstream media like NBCUniversal, while younger audiences are finding their entertainment on College Humor and Cracked.com and getting their news from BuzzFeed and privately run blogs.

You don't even need to be a Millennial to see the trend changing. A decade ago you likely wouldn't have met a person who didn't have several hundred channels cabled into their idiot box. Today you may only know a few.

Even if they are Comcast customers, much of people's viewing choices come from Netflix and Hulu where they can not only watch what they want when they want, but even watch original programming like Season 4 of Arrested Development and Orange Is The New Black which aren't even available on cable.

This rogue programming is often arguably better than standard programming because they're offered with less censorship, no network involvement, and are produced without the time constraints of the half hour sitcom or one hour drama.

Plus, and this is even more detrimental to the traditional cable programming business model, these programs are seemingly commercial-free because the advertising is imbedded in the application rather than interrupting the program. More and more people are willing to sit through a 30 second commercial to watch a three minute clip on YouTube, and advertisers are taking note.

If Comcast was smart, they would have bought Tumblr and Demand Media, not NBCUniversal.

It's hard to say if Comcast will ever choose to tap into this market. As Google begins to rollout Google Fiber, offering access 100 times faster than broadband, Comcast is saying we can't handle it and TimeWarner says we don't want it.

This may say little about the programming Comcast and TimeWarner offer, or the platform on which it's offered, but it says a lot about their corporate impression of the market place. 

These are the words of a monopoly. Of Walmart.

In fact, the cable industry has been lobbying Capitol Hill for the right to control how much of the internet their customers can access. Instead of joining the new media, cable providers are trying to block it. Like a cranky aunt with tight parental controls, Big Cable wants to restrict our viewing to serve their corporate interest.

Who knew allowing the sale of NBCUniversal to a company that controls which networks we access would have been a conflict of interest? Oh, just everyone.

But even if the cable industry succeeds in restricting Hulu and Netflix to serve themselves, market trends are dictated by the newest markets, markets these corporations don't seem to understand. These consumers already know where to find the content they want, and if they can't get it within a cable company's pre-packaged internet bundle, they'll find it on YouTube or download it from Russia.

And again, it doesn't matter because they're not watching television from a big screen TV in the living room, they're watching FunnyOrDie.com on the subway.

It's a new frontier.

These are consumers who got tired of Lady Gaga after a one year hiatus, despite her cult like following seemingly ages ago. To them, Google Fiber is Katy Perry and Comcast is Steely Dan. A laptop tethered to Comcast might as well be a big plastic Garfield phone.

If a technology company can't recognize that its market wants the newest and best, no matter how slightly newer or better, how will it ever be able to compete with the rogue, unpackaged entertainment within the Wild West of the internet, gaining more and more traction by the minute?

Barnes and Noble learned this from Amazon, and the retail industry learned this from everything from eBay to Overstock to CraigsList. Comcast, perhaps under the impression that access to the internet is somehow synonymous with the internet, ignored the memo.

As an amateur architectural buff with a vested interest in technology and our virtual environments, I only hope that Liberty Property Trust and Foster + Partners get to work on North 18th Street before Comcast's shareholders recognize exactly where they're headed.

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