Is Comcast Getting Too Big for Philly?

Can the city survive when its hottest company it cools off?


When Detroit declared bankruptcy last year, I responded with a column saying the same thing was unlikely to happen in Philadelphia. Why? Chief among my reasons was this: Detroit had spent a century as a one-industry town—it made cars, and that’s pretty much all it did—and when the world no longer wanted to buy Detroit’s cars, there was suddenly much less reason for Detroit to exist. Philly’s somewhat more diverse economy, I said, would keep us from taking the same death blows as the Motor City.

Now Comcast is buying Time Warner Cable, it is adding a second giant skyscraper to our skyline—and, well, now I’m not so sure. Now I wonder if Philly’s biggest company isn’t getting too big for Philly.

When I say that, I don’t mean it in the Kobe-goes-Hollywood Questlove-decamps-for-New York way. I don’t think Comcast is too good for Philly, ready to drop us for a trophy wife and a new city where it can be surrounded by its own multibillion-dollar industry-leading kind. Four years after the company bought NBC-Universal and stayed home, those anxieties should more or less be dispelled.

No, I mean this more in the “too big to fail” sense.

You remember “too big to fail” don’t you? The nation experienced it back in 2008, when large banks started dropping right and left. When it appeared that their failure was about to plunge the entire country into a new Great Depression, the government bailed them out. It was an awful choice, but it seemed better than the apocalyptic alternative.

It may sound crazy to speak of failure at this moment, when the Comcast purchase of Time Warner is about to create a company that could serve a third of all cable subscribers in the United States. Comcast is already the biggest cable company in the nation; how to describe what it’ll be after the merger? Mega-humongous?

But the company isn’t invulnerable. Yes, it added cable subscribers last quarter—but that was an interruption in an otherwise sustained run of slowly losing “cord cutters” to Internet-based services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. Comcast’s diversity does provide it resilience: It also provides Internet services in many places, so even if you are watching Netflix, Brian Roberts still has his hand in your pocket.

You may have noticed, though, that the kinds of communication technologies in whcih Comcast specializes evolve at a breakneck speed. A decade ago, Netflix was a DVD company. Hulu didn’t exist. Nobody, except a few rich nerds, owned an e-reader. Industries, and lives, have been transformed since then. Who can say what the industry will look like 10 years from now? Or who the winners and losers will be?

Can you say with assurance that Comcast will be the winner?

It can be argued that Comcast doesn’t have the same sway over Philadelphia’s economy that cars did in Detroit, or the banks did over the nation. There are thousands of Comcast employees in the city, yes, but they comprise a tiny minority of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents. We have other industries, as well as as community of colleges and universities that doesn’t quite exist in Detroit. We still have a better foundation, overall.

On the other hand, the company is about to dominate our skyline in rare fashion—not one, but two “vanity” skyscrapers—and its impact in local and state politics can scarcely be denied. (It can often even be frustrating.) Beyond issues of power and money, there’s simply the matter of pride: Philadelphia is home to a company that among the most successful in the world. In this case, at least, we’re not also-rans: We’re the capital!

Losing all of that, if it came to that, might be devastating. (Though in politics, it might be liberating.) It means Philadelphia is, probably to a greater extent than we want to admit, dependent on Comcast continuing to make the right decisions, continuing to be uber-profitable, continuing to lead the industry. It’s probably not a good thing for a major city to depend that much on a single enterprise.

Then again, maybe Comcast does continue to make the right decisions, continues to be uber-profitable, continues to lead the industry. Maybe in 20 years we look up and see three or four Comcast towers rising over Philadelphia. That probably sounds dystopian to some, but it’s not the worst of all possible fates.

These rides usually end at some point, however. So let’s hope that city leaders, instead of luxuriating in Comcast’s success, use it as an opportunity—to lure other tech- and media-oriented companies, to build more superstar corporations right here, to (as financial analysts say) diversify our portfolio.

Comcast being big can possibly have benefits for Philadelphia. Comcast being too big … well, I’m not sure we want to know how that story ends.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.