When Media Companies Try to Become Education Companies

Everyone from Disney to Bloomberg to AMC is launching education platforms--but the results have been mixed.
AMC/Canvas Network

Soon, you’ll be able to learn zombie apocalypse survival skills from AMC’s The Walking Dead. The University of California at Irvine is offering an eight-week online course in partnership with the series. AMC isn’t the first media company to push into education. At least two dozen others have tried before. They won’t be the last, either. Forbes and Atlantic Media, which owns The Atlantic, are also gearing-up to launch online learning programs.

Most media companies getting into education wind up learning some hard lessons themselves: Education is a very different business from media. And succeeding takes a lot more than having a well-known brand, built-in audience and high-quality content.

Two Ways to Do the Same Thing

It’s no secret that “traditional” publishers and broadcasters are scrambling to find new ways to make money beyond subscriptions and advertising. One increasingly common (yet largely unnoticed) way that many of the biggest, best-known, most-respected media owners are doing that is by launching educational programs featuring their brands, content and talent.

The list is a who’s who in entertainment (Discovery, Disney, PBS, Condé Nast, Elle, and Angry Birds), business information (Bloomberg, Businessweek, CFO Publishing, UBM, F+W Media, The Financial Times, and Harvard Business Publishing) and the news media (NBC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Die Zeit, and News Corp). Even “new media” brands like travel blog Matador and millennial careers site the Muse are doing it.

It’s not hard to understand why media executives think education is a logical extension of their brands. As news industry analyst, Ken Doctor, puts it, the media and schools are “just two ways to do the same thing: Gain knowledge. Media may be well suited to new educational roles,” he believes, because “it’s what we produce—information and perspective, building blocks of learning.”

It’s also easy to see why this looks like a compelling opportunity. “The education space is massive, very broken, barely touched by technology and has been largely underserved by entrepreneurs and investors,” says Andrew D’Souza, chief operating officer of education technology start-up, Top Hat. And that, he adds, means that “the opportunity for disruption, significant value creation and outsized returns is huge.”

Meanwhile, high-quality, proprietary content and respected, recognized brands are big advantages. Chris Tiné, director of product solutions at Macmillan Higher Ed, who also co-founded and helped run NBC Learn, says “teachers have been looking for ways to bring real-world media and examples into the classroom. Many students don’t respond to traditional instructional materials, but they get engaged when different forms of media like video, interactives and games are used.”

So as long as media companies have brands and content that engage learners (along with their readers or viewers), you should expect to see more of this kind of thing.

A Pretty Big Leap

One caveat: It’s a pretty big leap from informing or entertaining people to educating them. Only a handful of these initiatives (most notably News Corp.’s Amplify) have turned into meaningful, lasting businesses, but usually only after substantial investments or acquisitions.

More commonly, they end up shut down after their corporate parents lose patience—such as Disney’s K-12 education businessBloomberg Businessweek EDGE and the New York Times Knowledge Network, for instance. A handful, such as Bloomberg’s and The Economist’s, get a second chance to pivot and look for firmer footing. Most, however, just plod along.

Their difficulties are partly due to bad timing. According to Stephen Hirsch, one of the founders of the New York Times’ education unit, many of these programs began “at the exact moment the media industry was undergoing tumultuous disruption and economic pressure. And these companies urgently needed to make something happen at a time when both capital and patience were in short supply, for understandable reasons.”

Presented by

Todd Tauber heads business development at Nomadic Learning, a leadership-education startup. He previously co-founded The Economist's education division.

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