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CNET pushed reporters to be more favorable to advertisers, staffers say

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Last October, CNET’s parent company, Red Ventures, held a cross-department meeting to discuss the AI writing software it had been building for months. The tool had been in testing internally ahead of public use on CNET, and Red Ventures’ early results revealed several potential issues.

The AI system was always faster than human writers at generating stories, the company found, but editing its work took much longer than editing a real staffer’s copy. The tool also had a tendency to write sentences that sounded plausible but were incorrect, and it was known to plagiarize language from the sources it was trained on. 

Red Ventures executives laid out all of these issues at the meeting and then made a fateful decision: CNET began publishing AI-generated stories anyway. 

“They were well aware of the fact that the AI plagiarized and hallucinated,” a person who attended the meeting recalls. (Artificial intelligence tools have a tendency to insert false information into responses, which are sometimes called “hallucinations.”) “One of the things they were focused on when they developed the program was reducing plagiarism. I suppose that didn’t work out so well.”

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Of the 77 articles published on CNET using the AI tool since it launched, more than half have had corrections appended to them, some lengthy and substantial, after use of the tool was revealed by Futurism. CNET editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo, EVP of content and audience Lindsey Turrentine, and Red Ventures vice president of content Lance Davis defended the tool in an internal meeting with staff in January but said the company would pause the use of the tool “for now.” In a follow-up blog post, Guglielmo said publishing using the AI software was on hold until CNET was confident it could “prevent both human and AI errors,” but she was clear that this wasn’t the end of AI tools in the newsroom.

“Expect CNET to continue exploring and testing how AI can be used to help our teams as they go about their work testing, researching and crafting the unbiased advice and fact-based reporting we’re known for,” Guglielmo wrote.

“Everyone at CNET is more afraid of Red Ventures than they are of AI.”

But the controversial use of an AI system to generate stories even in the face of known issues with plagiarism and accuracy is merely the most visible outcome of Red Ventures’ ownership of CNET. Under the ownership of Red Ventures, a private equity-backed marketing firm that’s bought up more than a dozen digital publishers since the mid-2010s, staff at the storied tech news outlet say they have been fighting to protect CNET’s editorial independence and rigor amid a push toward sponsored content and affiliate marketing by its new corporate owners. As one staffer told The Verge for a previous piece, “Everyone at CNET is more afraid of Red Ventures than they are of AI.”

Multiple former employees told The Verge of instances where CNET staff felt pressured to change stories and reviews due to Red Ventures’ business dealings with advertisers. The forceful pivot toward Red Ventures’ affiliate marketing-driven business model — which generates revenue when readers click links to sign up for credit cards or buy products — began clearly influencing editorial strategy, with former employees saying that revenue objectives have begun creeping into editorial conversations. 

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Reporters, including on-camera video hosts, have been asked to create sponsored content, making staff uncomfortable with the increasingly blurry lines between editorial and sales. One person told The Verge that they were made aware of Red Ventures’ business relationship with a company whose product they were covering and that they felt pressured to change a review to be more favorable.

“I understood a supervisor to imply in conversation that how I proceeded with my review could impact my chances of promotion in the future,” they say. 

Red Ventures ignored an emailed list of questions from The Verge about its AI tool as well as CNET’s editorial independence and ethics, advertising, and staffing. The company instead offered to send a short statement about CNET’s editorial integrity but refused to provide it on the record attributable to anyone.

This apparent breakdown of the traditional barriers between editorial and advertising content is worlds away from CNET’s history, according to former staffers. Now more than 25 years old, the site has long been known for its thorough news coverage and comprehensive reviews program, which examines everything from laptops and phones to bookshelf speakers and home projectors. 

“[The reason I came to CNET] was the opportunity to be able to tell the truth no matter what,” a former staffer says. To them, working at CNET was different from other journalism jobs, where journalists can be honest but may need to self-edit. “You get to tell the truth [at other jobs], but a lot of times, you’re not allowed to say things that you really feel.” 

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But the CNET operated by Red Ventures is a very different place than the CNET it acquired in 2020. CNET, along with other Red Ventures-owned publications, is loading up on cheap SEO-driven articles to game Google’s search algorithm and fill search results with content designed to deliver affiliate links to readers. As a result, CNET’s independent journalism and the people who produce it — the thing that once made CNET valuable and rank highly in search to begin with — feel that they are being pushed out in favor of whatever and whomever else makes Red Ventures the most money, according to multiple former employees. 

“When you’re [covering] products and not people, it’s really easy to be like, ‘This new Apple thing sucks.’ I just thought that was a refreshing change of pace to be able to say things as they are,” the former staffer says. “And that continued all the way until Red Ventures took over.”

After Red Ventures scooped up CNET for $500 million in 2020, CEO Ric Elias promised the outlet would be able to continue to be an independent publication known for its robust offering of reviews and in-the-weeds tech news coverage. CNET staff had nothing to worry about, Elias told The New York Times. There was a “nonnegotiable line” separating the journalism from the money, and CNET’s staff of tech journalists could call him on his personal cellphone if there were ever a problem.

“I told them, ‘There’s a red line,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, we’ll see,’” Elias said.

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That skepticism now appears prescient. Former CNET staff say the guardrails that keep editorial content independent, like a divide between revenue teams and journalists, or a clear chain of command among leadership, were repeatedly breached after the Red Ventures acquisition. “Most of the time, [Guglielmo] seemed to just be relaying orders” from Red Ventures, a former staffer says. In turn, journalists were placed in difficult positions as they tried to fend off the encroaching influence of the business side. 

Former CNET staffers describe being asked to work on ads for companies that the outlet covers, including Volvo and home security company Arlo and having to push back against such requests from executives at the company. Three people told The Verge that they believe resistance to Red Ventures initiatives caused various CNET staffers to lose their jobs, with one saying that the pressure to be a “yes man” was a “collective experience” for some teams.

Multiple former CNET staffers point to the demise of the CNET Smart Home as an example of Red Ventures’ overreach. The Smart Home — a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home in Louisville, Kentucky, that the outlet had purchased in 2015 to test and produce videos on home products like robot vacuums and thermostats — had become something of a brand in and of itself. Since Red Ventures’ takeover, Smart Home staff repeatedly refused to work on sponsored content, saying it went against the integrity of their work. Readers look to tech reviewers for honest, unbiased assessments of companies’ products and services, and working on content that is paid for by these same companies can cast doubt on a reviewer’s ability to be independent.

“It’s a culture that if you disagree with them, they’re going to get rid of you and replace you with a zealot.”

In 2022, a Red Ventures executive named Marc McCollum stopped by the Smart Home for a short walk-through. McCollum, according to his LinkedIn profile, led the acquisition of CNET Media Group. A former staffer says he played a key role in the transition, with a focus on increasing profits.

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Shortly after McCollum’s visit, teams working out of the Smart Home learned that the company was planning on selling the house, and people working at the house believed their jobs would be at risk if the space were sold. But McCollum indicated that the company may be able to keep the house if it secured a lucrative advertising deal with GE Appliances, which had expressed interest in using the Smart Home for a commercial, multiple former employees say.

Hoping to avoid layoffs, some CNET staff pitched in on the GE Appliances deal in early talks and planning, and Red Ventures inked a deal. But CNET editorial staffers refused to shoot the ad itself, and contractors were ultimately used to work on the commercial, a former staffer says.

The GE Appliances shoot was ultimately moved from the Smart Home to an off-site location due to space limitations at the house, a GE Appliances spokesperson who would only identify themselves as “Whitney” told The Verge via email. GE Appliances was not aware of Red Ventures’ plans to sell the house, “Whitney” added.

But by the time the GE Appliances ad was released in September, many staff on the Smart Home team had already left the company. Seeing the “writing on the wall” — that the house would soon be put up for sale — some people were able to land new roles, a former staffer says; others were laid off that summer. The house was put up for sale shortly after the GE Appliances ad anyway, eventually selling in December for $1.275 million, according to Zillow. 

“It’s a culture that if you disagree with them, they’re going to get rid of you and replace you with a zealot,” a former employee, who was laid off, says of Red Ventures. “Somebody that’s absolutely a true believer, [that] drinks the Kool-Aid.”

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Former CNET staffers say their colleagues have also been pressured into appearing in ads for companies the outlet covers despite the murky ethics of using reporters in sponsored content. On-camera video hosts were uncomfortable with the idea of being in ads and pushed back against it, according to several former staffers. Using recognizable journalists for video content that’s paid for by advertisers can blur the lines and make it hard for viewers to tell what is and isn’t an ad. 

In one recent video, titled “Moen Unveils Innovative Smart Sprinkler Product at CES,” a CNET host takes viewers through the company’s booth at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, interviewing company representatives and testing products. The video is an ad, but the host doesn’t say that, and neither the video description nor title included a disclosure until recently. The only disclaimer was a small pop-up that YouTube inserts when an uploader has indicated there’s a paid promotion in a video, though CNET doesn’t actually specify what in the video is promoted. Moen did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the nature of the sponsorship or its labeling. After The Verge asked Red Ventures about the ad, a disclosure was silently added to the video’s description.

One of the key priorities for Red Ventures seems to be the company’s focus on affiliate links, which pepper its portfolio of sites like The Points Guy, Bankrate, and CreditCards.com. Over time, a focus on affiliate revenue has crept into CNET’s editorial decisions, causing frustration among staff.

In one meeting after the Red Ventures acquisition, a former employee says editorial staff were shown how much the company earned through affiliate categories like home furnishings with the suggestion they keep it in mind when producing future content. CNET staffers were also told that a separate commerce team would begin writing video descriptions that included affiliate links, which many people worried would suggest on-camera hosts were endorsing specific products.

“Red Ventures’ big mantra is that they help people make life’s most important decisions,” a former staffer says. “And yet all of their influence has been to get people to make decisions that are going to be the most profitable to Red Ventures.”

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CNET staff say that the proximity to revenue made it harder to maintain the editorial standards

“It’s very demoralizing. It’s actually soul-crushing. All you want to do is your job and you’re being told, ‘Don’t cover this,’ because the revenue potential is not there,” another former staff member says.

Advertising is what keeps most digital media companies afloat, and affiliate marketing is common across the industry. (The Verge earns a commission from affiliate links, as do other Vox Media-owned outlets, like The Strategist.) But in many newsrooms, there is a strict separation between the people dealing with advertisers and the people producing the news. At The Verge, for example, editorial staff never work on ads, and reviews writers don’t know how much parent company Vox Media earns through specific affiliate marketing links.

But under Red Ventures, former CNET staff say that the proximity to revenue made it harder and harder to maintain the editorial standards promised to audiences. 

“I do believe that the journalists who are doing the work at CNET are extremely ethical. I think that they have a lot of integrity, I think they work really hard,” they say. “But I think that they are under a great deal of pressure to make money for Red Ventures. And that’s just never a good situation for journalists.”

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Though the AI tool generating stories for CNET, Bankrate, and CreditCards.com was formally announced just weeks ago, Red Ventures’ “experiment” with enlisting artificial intelligence has been underway much longer. Like other publishers who’ve incorporated automated tools into their work, the Red Ventures proprietary AI software was sold to the newsroom as a way to more efficiently produce “the boring stuff” so writers could use their time instead and work on bigger projects. In actuality, enlisting artificial intelligence to write SEO bait accelerates the speed at which Red Ventures-owned websites can churn out search-optimized content loaded with affiliate links, cutting down the need for human writers — and the reporting they produce.

For Sarah Szczypinski, a former journalist on the CNET Money team who left the outlet in early 2022, the association with CNET in light of the AI-writing saga has been frustrating. Though Szczypinski quit many months before the AI-generated articles began appearing, people have started contacting her after the news broke, wondering if she, too, had used AI tools for her stories. Szczypinski maintains she wrote her stories on her own, without automation tools.

“The leadership team gave no thought to what these unilateral decisions would do to the people working there, especially the people who are journalists and need their readers to trust them,” Szczypinski told The Verge. “We still have lives to live and careers to forge. And we can’t do that with something as damaging as this hanging over our heads.”

In late January, Szczypinski contacted Red Ventures and CNET, asking to have her author page and bylines pulled. Her name has been scrubbed from dozens of articles, now replaced simply by “CNET Staff.”

Throughout the time Red Ventures has owned CNET, the outlet’s leadership has promised readers time and again that its journalism is as strong as ever. Even as Guglielmo, Turrentine, and Red Ventures executives dodged questions from readers, staff, and reporters about the AI system, they pointed to CNET’s track record built over decades as evidence of trustworthiness. Audiences trust CNET for tech news, reviews, and recommendations, they reasoned, so they can trust CNET for how to move forward with artificial intelligence.

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But even the more public ways CNET has tried to elicit trust from its audience have been hollowed out by a relentless drive toward optimization and gaming the search algorithm at the expense of the very work that had made CNET valuable.

CNET’s public ethics policy has not been meaningfully updated in years —  it still lists CBS as its parent company — but last year, the publication added nearly a dozen links detailing exactly how it tests and vets products to a hyper-specific degree, with separate posts for how CNET reviews everything from credit cards and TVs to vacuums and more. One way of looking at these posts is to provide readers — and potential customers — with as much detail as possible about CNET’s methodology. 

But for Red Ventures, these articles are just more fodder to boost its bottom line: Google likes when publishers demonstrate “experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness,” and the search algorithm factors in articles like these when it ranks search results. Articles packed with words like “unbiased,” “credible,” and “thoroughly vetted” are great for Red Ventures’ SEO-heavy strategy.

After all, Google can’t tell if it’s true.

Correction February 2nd, 2023 11:41AM ET: This story originally stated that CNET and Red Ventures had an advertising deal with GE. The deal was with GE Appliances, which GE sold to Haier in 2016. We regret the error.

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Smartphone scams are dead – Android Authority

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Robert Triggs/Android Authority

Ten years ago, the 2013 Samsung Galaxy S4 was a technological marvel. Android phones had only been around for a few years at that point, and it seemed like the Galaxy S4 could do a lot despite its small size. As consumers, we were delighted. So much so, that to this day the Galaxy S4 remains the best-selling Android phone of all time, with over 80 million units sold.

However, that was ten years ago – an eternity in the tech world. Things have changed dramatically since then. The smartphone tricks we saw in the Galaxy S4 — like the Smart Scroll, which let you scroll the contents of your screen by moving your head up or down — would be completely ridiculous to see in a 2023 phone.

Today, smartphones are ubiquitous gadgets, not technical marvels. Consumers are using their phones more than ever before, yes, but that has faded the shine. Modern smartphone buyers don’t want gimmicks. They want a phone that fixes the basics and hides in the background.

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In 2023, if a smartphone manufacturer thinks that some cool new trick will be the backbone that sells its phones, it will be in a world of disappointment. Not only will consumers care, but investing in research and development for this trick could do more harm than good.

What are the tricks of the smartphone?

Google Pixel 4 XL Long Range 2 review

Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

The term “gimmick” can be used broadly. In general, when it comes to smartphones, we think of gimmicks as features that are only applicable to very specific situations, appeal to a limited subset of users, or offer no real value (or some combination thereof).

One of history’s most egregious examples of smartphone scams was the Soli radar system in the Google Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. Soli was a set of front-facing radar sensors that could track your hand movements. They let you do things like pause the music simply by waving your hand near the screen. While Soli performed as advertised, consumers simply didn’t care, and the Pixel 4 series was the biggest failure in Pixel history.

If your star phone feature only appeals to a few people, it’s probably a gimmick.

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A more recent example came with the OnePlus 10 Pro last year. This phone was equipped with an ultra-high resolution camera with a field of view of 150 degrees. This was essentially a fish-eye lens, creating highly distorted images that looked unreal. Although software trickery helped fix images in post-processing, critics and consumers alike saw no need for such a bizarre lens. OnePlus eliminated the lens on this year’s OnePlus 10T and OnePlus 11.

Here are some other smartphone tricks we’ve seen:

  • foreign matter: OnePlus recently announced the Jupiter Rock Edition of the OnePlus 11. It has a back that is basically made of rock. Who asked for this?
  • Macro lenses: While a great telephoto lens can be an interesting addition to a solid lens collection, most of the time that’s not the case. Often, OEMs will throw in cheap 2MP macro lenses to make a phone look more premium than it is. In other words, the thought process is that more lenses = better cameras, which consumers are no longer fooled by.
  • Super fast charging: While it’s crazy to see 240W charging speeds on a smartphone (that’s fast enough to charge from empty to full in about ten minutes), who really needs that? These speeds are also said to be detrimental to the health of the battery, thus shortening the life of your phone.
  • Cooling systems: Lenovo Legion Duel 2 – a gaming phone – had a cooling fan built into it. While this is practical for a phone designed for gamers, it also made the phone unwieldy, prevented an IP rating, and made wireless charging impossible. It solved one problem at the expense of basic smartphone features. Likewise, OnePlus’ latest concept phone has a liquid cooling system that didn’t even work.

These gimmicks don’t help sell phones because they don’t give us what we really want: a great overall experience.

But what about phones in specific niches, like rugged phones? Is the rugged phone a gimmick? I’d argue it isn’t, but they also don’t sell in the numbers we’d see with something like the Galaxy S series. These phones exist for specific purposes for a specific consumer, so they get a special pass.

The current smartphone successes are all the evidence you need

Google Pixel 7 Pro camera housing

Robert Triggs/Android Authority

We know why smartphone manufacturers invest in these kinds of tricks. They obviously think they’ll help sell the phones or, at the very least, help their products stand out from the crowd. This is an odd strategy because the most successful phones tend to be relatively gimmick-free.

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Here in the US, the iPhone is by far the most popular smartphone. For the first time ever, Apple has more than 50% of the market in the US, leaving the other half to Android OEMs (mostly Samsung). The iPhone doesn’t have a lot of tricks. One could argue that Dynamic Island is a gimmick, but it’s one that consumers seem to enjoy, so it doesn’t really count.

Unsurprisingly, the most successful phones are also some of the most gimmick-free.

In second place, Samsung’s Galaxy S series also stands out as being gimmick-free. The Galaxy S23 Ultra’s S Pen may be a bit gimmicky for some. However, it’s also incredibly popular and a calling card for a premium Galaxy experience, so we’ll be happy to let this feature slip. Despite this, the Galaxy S23 and Galaxy S23 Plus are pretty boring with how functional and no-nonsense they are. And guess what? The Galaxy S23 line is selling better than the Galaxy S22 line.

Of course, we can’t forget about Google’s pixel font. The Google Pixel 7 Pro doesn’t have any weird tricks up its sleeve, and was voted the best Android phone of 2022 by both Android Authority And our readers. It’s interesting that when Google gave up the tricks, it ended up selling more phones than ever before.

Obviously, phones can reach consumers without gimmicks. However, Dynamic Island and the S Pen show that there is still room for fun and doing things differently.

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However, phones can still be fun

None Phone Number 1 graphic on the back

Oliver Cragg / Android Authority

We’ve already discussed plenty of examples of stupid smartphone tricks that get in the way of a good experience. However, some tricks work.

Take Nothing Phone 1, for example. The lights on the back of the device — officially known as The Glyph — appear to be a ridiculous gimmick. Once you use the phone, you will realize that it is actually an Android smartphone with a strange light show added. In other words, The Glyph can be ignored, and you’ll still get a great Android experience with a very fair cost-to-value ratio.

I’m not against the trick. There is plenty of room for fun features.

This is a great example of how doing tricks properly can be beneficial. Nothing crammed into The Glyph comes at the expense of wireless charging, a premium feel, or a decent camera system. Use the trick as a light garnish on top of a satisfying meal. It’s a beautiful detail that highlights an already well-done dish.

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Google’s Magic Eraser is another example of a gimmick that works. With the Pixel’s camera experience already being one of the best (if not the best) phone camera experiences available, the Magic Eraser feature exists as a useful tool for people looking to fix otherwise great photos. It was not Need Magic Eraser, but it’s practical and fun when you want it to be.

That’s all to say that smartphones don’t need to be boring. There’s plenty of room for fun gimmicks, cool aesthetics, and thought-provoking twists. But gimmicks can’t be the phone’s selling point. They must be side players.

OEMs will need to shift focus — or dump

Lenovo Legion Duel 2 1

Luke Pollack / Android Authority

Remember Lenovo Legion Duel 2, the phone with an integrated cooling system? Unfortunately, this trick didn’t work out very well for Lenovo. Recently, the company confirmed this Android Authority He shut down the Legion’s smartphone arm.

We’ve also mentioned OnePlus several times in this article. This company is not doing well either. There is a rumor that it could pull out along with sister brand OPPO from the European market either this year or in 2024. OnePlus has lost all carrier partnerships in the US, and its latest flagship — the OnePlus 11 — hasn’t gotten strong reviews. Again, tricks don’t seem to have helped here.

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What do you think of smartphone scams?

146 votes

This all supports my central argument: scams don’t sell phones. We’ve settled on wanting phones that excel at the essentials: battery life, camera, screen, usability, performance, and so on. I could also argue that design is just as important here, though it’s more subjective than something like battery life. What doesn’t matter are the extra lenses, radar systems, cooling fans, rock-solid backboards, and all the other tricks we’ve seen.

Companies that are stuck in 2013 and think cool gimmicks will sell a lot of phones will need to wake up from that dream sooner rather than later. Apple and Samsung eat your lunch and do so without relying on gimmicks. Make your phones awesome at a competitive price and we’ll buy it. Simply.

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All of my favorite games this year are old

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I also installed the original version Final Fantasy, the game that debuted when I was three years old, on Sony’s most advanced console yet, I came to a realization: everything I played this year was outdated. Between remakes, new releases, and vintage collections, there’s been a flood of nostalgia. I personally welcomed it.

These kinds of releases aren’t new, of course. What was different during the early months was the huge amount of classic releases. Two of the biggest movies so far this year – dead space And Resident Evil 4 – is a remake of titles from more than a decade ago. Both are slick, slick updates that don’t look out of place among recent big-budget releases, but part of what makes them so attractive is how straightforward they are. There are no open worlds filled with endless quests or live service items to keep you coming back. And most of these design decisions date back to their ages, as these games were made at a completely different time with very different expectations. In my review of Resident Evil 4 A remake, I called it “a video game like this,” and I meant that as a compliment.

Advance Wars 1 + 2: Re-Boot Camp.
Image: Nintendo

But they can also be a lot of work, frequently setting in to be all-consuming experiences that keep you hooked and never let go. Oh I love Fortnite Like everyone else, but that’s not all I want from my video games. Whether it is as complicated as RE4 Or simply put a scene from the opera Final Fantasy VI On my PS5, these games have returned a simplicity and focus I often find missing from their modern contemporaries. vampire And Final Fantasy They are very different experiences, but they give me the same feeling of a whole solo journey that I’m supposed to play through from start to finish. Same goes for the other old games I’ve been playing.

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Playing—and in many cases, replaying—these games was an exercise in reminding myself of what could be so great about a medium. The largest modern versions tend to imitate each other to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from one another. That’s what makes a lot of indie releases so exciting, and likewise, what keeps me coming back for all these new releases of old games — so it’s good to me that this trend shows no sign of stopping.

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NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell leaves Comcast due to ‘improper conduct’

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NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell will leave Comcast, effective immediately. The telecom giant made the surprising announcement in a brief press release Released on Sunday. After an investigation prompted by a complaint of improper conduct, Comcast says it has reached a “joint” decision with Shell that he should resign from his position.

“Today is my last day as CEO of NBCUniversal. I had an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company, which I deeply regret,” Shell said in a joint statement. “I am really sorry that I left my colleagues at Comcast and NBCUniversal, they are the most talented people in this field and the opportunity to work with them over the past 19 years has been a privilege.”

Comcast has not named a successor to Shell. in a note obtained diverseComcast CEO Brian Roberts and President Mike Kavanagh told employees they were “disappointed” to share the news. “We built this company on a culture of integrity. Nothing is more important than how we treat each other. You must count on your leaders to create a safe and respectful workplace,” they wrote. “When our principles and policies are violated, we will always move quickly to take appropriate action, as we have done here.”

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Shell joined Comcast in 2004. He became CEO of NBCUniversal in 2020. That same year, he oversaw the launch of Peacock. Shell leaves NBCUniversal without making the streaming service profitable. At the beginning of the year, Comcast told investors that it had done so Added five million paid subscribers During the last three months of 2022. However, over the same period, the company lost nearly $1 billion while operating the service.

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