Can the New Comcast NBC Universal Get Social?

The newly merged Comcast NBC Universal's biggest problem isn't outmoded prime-time ratings or over-the-top threats to cable television. It is the absence of a compelling, coordinated social-networking strategy to aid the challenging integration of its content and distribution businesses.

Without it, the $30 billion union faces an uphill battle in building value, and profits hinged on the interaction of consumers, advertisers, content producers and service providers.

This same imperative haunts even Google, whose co-founders in an earnings call Thursday addressed the importance of social to their search business with more platitudes than results. Even hardware king Apple is wrestling with the social networking phenomenon with its nascent "Photo Streams," "Media Streams" and "Find My Friends" features embedded into in its operating system and iPad-iPhone ecosystem.

An effective social strategy has eluded most media companies that consider posted reader comments and clickable interactive ad gestures. Of course, it doesn't help that the analytics of mining and measuring social media are, admittedly, all over the map.

But Comcast's unusually big bet is on its ability to create synergies and new revenue streams leveraging NBC's cable and broadcast TV assets, which largely push out content and services rather than engage in an interactive exchange. There is little about the united venture that is social.

The once monopolistic television sphere is increasingly being squeezed by the larger broadband universe where streaming video streams across all screens, all the time. Comcast NBCU's television domain must fit into the broadband dynamic -- not the other way around.

To that end, the slow adoption of TV Everywhere and Canoe Ventures on the Comcast side of the ledger, and Hulu on NBCU's side, won't jump-start the merged company's interactive stance.  Even paying billions for future Olympic Games rights will not generate adequate returns without formulating an innovative company-wide social strategy that pulls viewers, marketers and athletes through the experience as fully engaged participants.

So much of the regulatory merger review has been focused on how Comcast might seek to sabotage the broadcast networks' pathetically slow entry into the digital age, such as pulling NBC programs from Hulu.com or slow the streaming video service's competing traffic. Too little time and energy has been fixed on using the wealth and know-how of Comcast-NBCU to advance its digital fortunes.

Steve Burke, NBCU's new CEO, will quickly become engulfed in the reorganization, asset reshuffling and overall cost-cutting that overwhelms every corporate merger. He must as keenly focus on ways to generate new business models and revenues that reach beyond the familiar TV mechanics.

That can only be possible if Comcast and NBCU executives accept there is way more to interactivity than cable subscribers ordering programs and films of choice, or shifting NBCU content to Hulu and Netflix.  The meteoric growth of Google's YouTube provides a bridge from old school to new school ad-backed video.

They also are going to have to identify new ways to interface with Facebook as well as create compelling interactive social frameworks for the merged companies' most popular content and services. Why? Because Facebook is the new universal media filter.

Facebook and other social-networking forces have whipsawed every kind of media by nabbing and using their audiences to create a new filter for accessing content that can charge connector or finder fees (ala Google's successful AdWords).

Despite the recent Goldman Sachs' $500 million funding debacle that hangs a $50 billion valuation and IPO cloud on Facebook, the social networking king is worthy of emulation.  Facebook reaches 70% of all U.S. Internet users, who spend about 10% of their time on the service. More than half of its members use Facebook Connect monthly as a bridge to frequented places on the Web and use the Facebook as a game-playing platform, according to JP Morgan. Facebook already generates nearly $2 billion in advertising revenues and is the fourth-most-used search site in the world.

While marketers and media alike have created their own Facebook pages, few have demonstrated a clear, creative embrace of social networking on their own turf. That has contributed to setting the new status quo adrift: Facebook has replaced Google as the most visited site in the world, reaching more people in more proactive ways than all of the TV networks combined.  Facebook-inspired GroupOn is jolting advertisers with more effective real-time consumer connections and transactions than can be achieved virtually anywhere else on the media spectrum.

For its part, Comcast and NBCU are tethered to conventional advertising sales based on ratings, which it will cheer during its kick-off town hall meetings Jan. 27 in New York and Los Angeles.  Instead, it needs to view its combined future in true digital interactive terms that set an industry pace.  What's a newly merged media behemoth to do to set its social compass?  Here are a few suggestions:

*Launch alliances with major advertisers that are a good fit for viewers of specific shows and services to experiment with real-time social elements.

*Create social buzz around the TV Anywhere product, shared with Time Warner, with a pro-active web of program-related viewer recommendations, comments and actions shared across all screens.

*Use NBC owned and affiliated TV stations to piggyback Facebook's growing appeal to small business as a cost-effective, proactive marketing and sales tool. Comcast's dominant cable platform and NBCU's powerful entertainment and information networks should find every way to proactively align with Facebook.

**Create more lively, functional communities around content. The company's diverse news and information products that sweep from NBC News and E! to CNBC and MSNBC provide a unique portfolio for news junkies to bring their digital habits to: from tweeting to texting.

** Learn to mine social for relationships  and impact. Comcast got into trouble several years ago for collecting and trying to use subscriber data. Enough has changed since then so that matching consumers with programming, information and marketing opportunities relevant to their lives and interests can be molded into a very vital and profitable venture. Comcast NBCU has all the right assets and connections to make it happen.

 **Align Comcast's Daily Candy and NBCU's iVillage to create a vibrant social chain of viewers, marketers, content producers and special interest groups that can use the combined platform for more relevant enterprise. Get all the right people  interacting with each other in real-time, and a social enterprise will take on a life of its own.

It's time for the new Comcast NBCU to ask, what is more dangerous: a merged media giant tangled in its own legacy or the untapped power of interactive social networks?  

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5 comments about "Can the New Comcast NBC Universal Get Social?".
  1. Jay Levin , January 24, 2011 at 1:10 p.m.

    Good post Diane. As always intelligent assessment and relevant and practical going forward suggestions. Tough ending question.

  2. Jay Oconner from World Colours Network Inc. , January 25, 2011 at 9:39 a.m.

    Excellent article and provides the pathway for PULL vs PUSH Advertising. What is needed in addition is a monetization business model that allows viewers to instantly access the community of viewers through a brandcasting approach using geo-targeting rather that SPRAY and PRAY. Click Buy is that stream and it seems that the technological advantage will provide a few benefits not realized. 1. Commercial free viewing on the web. 2. A reduction in Piracy as products are placed in the content removing the barrier for worldwide release. 3. A opening of the Entertainment pipeline to allow more creatives the opportunity to fund more production and thereby more content for viewers to choose from. 4. A revenue share opportunity that will allow the entire supply chain to prosper, bringing more jobs, more tax revenue. Imagine a shopping cart attached to "Sex in the City" Fellas sorry. I bet there are products of interest even from the first seasons box set. But will the majors embrace Social Media and learn from the lessons the Record Industry was slow to learn?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , January 25, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.

    If someone wants to click on a post program with a where to buy program, no problem. Just don't track me for watching. We consumers are just little pay to join pawns in their game whether they win or lose, they win.

  4. Dana Todd from Performics , January 25, 2011 at 11:56 a.m.

    My first reaction to this article was skepticism; they have much bigger problems than a social media strategy. They have an infrastructure problem that will impede ANY strategy right now: licensing, streaming limitations (have you tried to watch an NBC show on their site? It's horrible), limited advertiser content, reluctant sales teams who don't make as much money from digital sales, etc.

    But I do agree with you that all content producers (and ultimately that's what NBC is) need to grapple with the "social operating system" that is both an opportunity and a challenge. It's an opportunity in that Facebook and other social media provide connectivity between personal media consumption devices, and a level of personalization and insight never before seen in media. However, it's a messy messy operating system. There are no standards, each point of entry requires its own solution, and privacy issues prevent full access to data for large scale development.

    Part of the responsibility then lies with the social media providers themselves. If they're not creating an easier method for content producers to integrate consistently, we'll never move beyond the syndication models we have now. If they treat themselves like an operating system, and fully engage the development community specific to mass media producers and content rights-holders, then there's a real chance for innovation.

  5. Jay Oconner from World Colours Network Inc. , January 27, 2011 at 9:41 a.m.

    @ Paula, I am in agreement and the technology I am suggesting works in post, but you raise a interesting question about tracking as its my understanding that if you could see how or who are already dropping cookies as they drop crumbs through, malware, search history, telephone calls, emails, skypes, posts, and now cameras on the streets for everything from speeding to littering. So I was wondering what tracking what you are watching on TV could do in addition to potentially every key stroke technology that exists as much as for our protection less we forget 9/11 and the Privacy Rights of individuals who are supposed to be Free. What is the correct balance as it relates to Social TV? Remember if its electronic you can't hide it in a draw. Its out there. Perhaps there is another type of tracking that I am missing it so please holla back..