Comcast aims for Net gains
The cable giant will soon offer online content free — to those who subscribe to its cable.
Arunkumar Selvan shot billiards in Comcast Corp.'s CIM City lounge, 15 stories above the steamy asphalt of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, while a photographer a few feet away snapped blog photos of Fancast.com editor Julie Zied.
On the far side of this rarefied and air-conditioned space, with its stunning view of the Cira Centre, Anandahan Subbiah and J. Mike Rosario pounded out a game of Ping-Pong.
They were working up a sweat. Grunt. Grunt. Slam! "People weren't very good when we put the table up," said Sean Brown, a Comcast director of engineering, "but after a few months it was like Forrest Gump in here."
The soaring three-story CIM City lounge inside the new Comcast headquarters, with its couches, flat-panel TVs, Rock Band game gear, and chess tables, is the focal point for Comcast Interactive Media, the Philadelphia company's 800-employee Internet division.
Not content to dominate the cable industry, Comcast believes that a cool CIM division can loosen up the top Philadelphia company's accounting-oriented culture, and help speed development of new products for the Internet. (No one knows exactly when the division's lounge first acquired the CIM City moniker, but the company's media-relations people were quick to pick up on it.)
In the past, new-product cycles in the cable industry could drag on for years. At CIM, the hope is to boil the cycle down to 25 days, said Sam Schwartz, one of the division's top executives.
Comcast has moved cautiously on the Internet, unlike others. News Corp. purchased MySpace. Google Inc. bought YouTube. Comcast, the nation's largest cable company with 24 million cable TV subscribers, seeks smaller companies that have a prayer of profitability, or ones that broaden Comcast's technology platform on the Internet.
Chief executive officer Brian L. Roberts says he does not believe customers will cut the cord on cable TV service for online video streaming to a computer because, he hopes, the Internet video will remain complementary to the drama of big and dazzling high-definition TVs.
Schwartz and Amy Banse, who was instrumental in developing E!, Golf, Versus, and Style programming networks at Comcast, run the CIM division with its seven separate, and seemingly disparate, properties: Fancast.com, Comcast.net, Fandango, and movies.com Web sites, as well as the Plaxo, Daily Candy, and thePlatform businesses. Banse is president of Comcast Interactive Media. Schwartz is executive vice president of strategy and development.
The company does not disclose CIM's revenue, although it is considered a tiny fraction of Comcast's overall $35 billion revenue.
CIM's biggest current project will roll out this summer with online video for Comcast cable TV customers. The cable giant will stream a substantial amount of its entertainment and other content over the Internet.
The content will be available free to subscribers of Comcast's pay-TV service, unlike Hulu and YouTube, which make free online video available to everyone. Both Hulu and YouTube, analysts say they believe, are losing substantial amounts of money, although their online video views are growing dramatically.
The strategy of making Comcast content available online to cable TV customers is a recognition that people watch more online video and Comcast has to provide the entertainment on the computer where people want it. Comcast has 15.3 million high-speed Internet customers, making it the largest residential Internet provider in the nation. "You should be able to get whatever is available on your TV on your computer," Banse said, referring to Comcast customers.
CIM employees have developed the necessary software so that users can verify online that they are Comcast cable TV customers and, thus, are permitted to watch Comcast TV content online.
ThePlatform subsidiary, located in Seattle, manages the nuts and bolts of online video publishing for about 100 organizations and companies, such as the Associated Press.
Ian Blaine, thePlatform's chief executive officer, said in a phone interview that the Seattle company helped deliver 690 million online videos to viewers on the Internet in April.
Media companies hire thePlatform, or its competitor, Brightcove Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., to help them stream video through Internet browsers and to offer other services, Blaine said.
ThePlatform integrates advertising and applications that allow viewers to rate and comment on online video. "Very few successful media companies are just plopping a video on their Web site," Blaine said.
Maggie Suniewick, executive director of content development for CIM, said Comcast would initially show full-length movies and TV shows on Fancast.com that traditionally have been available only on Comcast cable TV, and shorter, trailer-type videos on Comcast.net.
Although Comcast.net and Fancast.com are closely connected with Comcast's cable TV product, other CIM businesses are not.
In Los Angeles, the Fandango movie-ticket Web site is having a good year because of a booming big-screen industry in 2009, said Chuck Davis, chief executive of Fandango and the related Internet site, movies.com. Some say they believe the bad economy has led people to escape to the movies.
Fandango has exclusive rights to sell marked-up online movie tickets to about 60 percent of the nation's movie screens through its contracts with AMC Lowes, Regal, and Cinemark. While movie-ticket sales have risen 16 percent this year, Fandango's sales jumped 41 percent, Davis said. He did not disclose actual sales or revenue.
Davis, a former senior vice president of circulation and marketing at TV Guide, when it was based in Radnor, was hired at Fandango in 2006 from Shopzilla.com. Davis also worked at Walt Disney Co.
With Davis, Fandango has added more entertainment news on its site, celebrity photo galleries, blogs, movie trailers, and feedback sections.
Davis also has management oversight of Daily Candy, a media firm in New York that e-mails very short fashion stories daily to about 2.8 million subscribers. The company has correspondents in about a dozen cities, including Philadelphia.
Daily Candy's correspondents spot local fashion trends. A Daily Candy e-mail for June 1 to Philadelphia subscribers was six paragraphs on a store in the 700 block of South Fourth Street, Wilbur Vintage, that sold feathery hair combs. Daily Candy sells advertising to skin-lotion manufacturers and other fashion-product companies.
The evolving Internet division is "opportunistic" in how it picks and chooses new properties, Davis said. "There is not a playbook which says, 'aha, Fandango and Daily Candy should be part of it.' "
Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or firstname.lastname@example.org.