Universities as Content Aggregators

***UPDATE**: Work continues on a third section to this post that treats the “why” of universities embracing their role as content aggregators.*

### So Comcast Bought a Stake in NBC

The big news in the media content and distribution industries is that Comcast is acquiring a 51 percent interest in NBC. (That would be a controlling interest.) This really shouldn’t be news because after Comcast previously tried to do something similar with Disney. But should this be news to those of us in the university?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is that this move by Comcast reveals that it is aware that it’s traditional business model, subscribing individuals to tiered cable packages, is waning. As almost any current, or former cable subscriber can attest, or guess, the money to be made through the tiered system was in spreading out compelling content across the tiers, usually drawing (aka forcing) subscribers to upgrade to more cable than they wanted in order to get the one or two or three channels in the next package up they wanted. (And don’t get me started on the incredible jump in pricing for HD, especially in the wake of the almost too overt to be believed deterioration in SD delivery.)

Now, with aggregators like iTunes and Hulu already in the marketplace and making it possible to get exactly what they want, quite often, for the price of a decent broadband connection, it’s clear that the cable subscription model has limited life left in it. The emergent model is, well, I’ve already said it: aggregation.

Neither iTunes nor Hulu, nor the other aggregation players, produce any content, they only make it possible to get it more easily, more conveniently, without having to traipse around the web, without having to download yet another browser plug-in.

Okay, iTunes does require that you download, well, iTunes, and Hulu now offers its own standalone desktop client, but both have sufficient quantity, and quality, of content that they can make such demands and most users don’t mind.

The new technology landscape makes it possible for all of us to be producers of content as well as consumers. Not all of us will make the choice to produce, but those who do have found out that it’s hard to find a place, an audience in a marketplace that dins with teenaged boys filming each other doing stupid things on Youtube.

To some degree, both producers and consumers want aggregation. Wil Harris of [Channel Flip.com](http://www.channelflip.com/) makes this point on [the most recent TWiT program](http://twit.tv/215).

**Producers** want it because they don’t want to have to do distribution themselves, and they also stand a better chance of getting paid upfront in exchange for cutting exclusivity deals with distributors, letting the distributors worry about CPM (clicks per thousand) and other bits of advertising arcana.

**Consumers** want it because most really want someone else to vet the quality of materials for them. Given the press of everyday life, there is simply too much to do and so it’s nice when you can count on someone else to determine which are the best tech news feeds or gardening news feeds.

Are these things customizable? Sure, and that’s going to be the next step, but as much as advertisers probably dream of being able to buy targeted specifically to the people who will certainly buy their product, the chances for cross-fertilization and our own human boredom with too much of the same will, I trust, keep things sufficiently general as not too overwhelm us with too much of the same thing.

Honestly, I’m a Mac user and I like tech, but one Mac rumor/tech site is enough for me. After that, I’m ready to move on to Slashdot or Wired and get a wider view of what’s happening in the tech world.

### What was that about universities?

Universities are, if you think about it, already in the business of content aggregation. It happens in the curriculum and in classrooms and it happens in libraries. Universities are already in the business, in fact, of aggregating content producers. Their chief problem, at present, is that they are grappling with how best to use the latter business to drive business to the former.

One of the tensions, of course, is that the content producers, scholars and scientists — who may or may not think of themselves as content producers — already have extant forms of content aggregation in the form of scholarly societies and journals.

Some universities are aggregating by simply making a lot of the non-scholarly stuff available. E.g., MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Some universities are simply mandating that scholarly products also be available via their distribution channel. E.g., Harvard University. But some universities are seeing this as an opportunity to capture a little of the classroom, a little of the scholarly, and a whole bunch of that stuff that happens in between — data, preliminary notes and findings in blogs, conversations — in an on-line venue. Stanford has elements of this in their SEE (Stanford Engineering Everywhere) and [Entrepreneurship Corner](http://ecorner.stanford.edu/).

A quick glance at the Stanford site reveals that it has not been passive in its aggregation of content: these are not self-produced podcasts and videos. So the university has taken on some dimensions of production, but we could, I think, understand that to be a function of its larger investment in, its larger aggregation of, producers.

I also recognize that almost all these examples are drawn from business schools and/or their ancillary units, which makes a certain amount of sense. Universities already have revenue streams there. I think the real opportunity here is for universities to recognize these same possibilities for their humanities, human sciences, and science faculties. As I have said before, this may require a more active role in the production of these materials, but once faculty grasp/grok these new opportunities, I think enough of them will embrace them and take them in new directions that none of us can now imagine.

### Why? Why Do This?

Why take the time? Why spend the money? Why dedicate the resources?

These are all valid questions for any university to ask when engaging any new course of action. And they are important to ask especially when engaging a course surrounded by so much hyperbole and prolegomena. *To the digital parapets, people! We must be victorious lest our competitors vanquish us first!*

Okay, it’s not quite that dramatic, but sometimes it feels that way. It’s definitely the case that all too often the answer to *why?* consists of some version of *because everyone else is doing it*.

My answer is this: it’s what smart universities have always already been doing. (*A tip of the hat to Derrida.*) What the IT revolution has done is to lower considerably both the cost of doing it more and better and to raise the visibility of the end product.