Just Wondering...Pip Coburn
A longtime Wall Street analyst and consultant, Coburn chatted with B&C about tech trends in the TV world.Pip Coburn’s new book, The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn, looks at the socioeconomic factors that cause various technological concepts, such as interactive television, the iPod and high-def TV, to flourish or fail. Reminiscent of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Change is built upon Coburn’s Total Perceived Pain of Adoption (TPPA) formula; people will make the move to entertainment PCs or HDTV only when the pain of not doing so outweighs the pain—reading the owner’s manual, waiting for the cable guy—of doing so.
How do you see the future for alternative platform viewing of video?
I think it’s rich and abundant. Multiple formats give people more freedom, and that’s pretty darn valuable. In the old days you could argue that the vendors controlled the channels. When I was 10, there were four TV stations. Today there’s, I don’t know, 125 in my house. Inside five years the idea of how many channels you have coming into your TV set will seem a little wacky, because it’ll be nearing infinite. And in 10 years, I’m not even sure if we’ll use the word TV.
While the vendors are still fighting for who owns the channel, the reality is, the user has taken control in many instances now. If you don’t regard and respect that, you should be aware of the significant consequences that might afflict your business.
The book touts the value of flat-panel TVs. What’s another TV technology you’d invest in?
I suspect you’re going to get HDTV kicking in inside the next three to four years in a far more significant way. But people don’t actually know that they want it yet, and they’re not hearing from their friends quite yet, ‘You just have to get this.’ But I think that’ll happen in the next three or four years.
When do we see the wonder-device—the PC, TV, DVD, stereo, etc. all rolled into one—in the majority of homes?
I don’t think it’s going to be one device. Users are filling their households with all sorts of items, and very few of those stay in the house. Most of them are mobile: laptops, iPods, things like that. Large flat-panel television might be the exception. Some people will choose to connect all of them through a game player. Some will choose to connect through a media server. Some will choose not to have them connect but will have 3G capability wireless brought into the house.
I think you’re going to get all sorts of different solutions, which Microsoft inherently likes—the idea of selling more and more license to more and more products.
If you had five minutes with Bob Iger or Richard Parsons, what would you tell them?
Try everything. Expect tremendous failure. Continually iterate. Give users more choice, more control. Those are the abstracts. On a case by case basis, is it succeeding or not? Should we put a little more money into it or not?
The opposite is creating Waterworld. Technology’s version of Waterworld might be Microsoft’s Vista, where you spend five years creating something, and by the time it’s out, no one seems to care that much about it. While Microsoft is spending five years to get one refresh of its operating system out, Apple’s put out three versions and is able to respond to users’ needs much more effectively. If someone asked you or I to figure out five years ago what would be interesting [on TV] today, you or I would not have created Dancing With the Stars.
You want to iterate, you want to assume you’re going have a lot of failure, assume you’re going to have to manage multiple platforms. And short-form ads are extremely powerful. If people have 30 or 60 seconds, think of that as a block of time that’s useable.
Do you see the Youtube craze continuing for much longer?
Absolutely. Some of it will move beyond user-generated; you could say Paris Hilton started off user-generated, and now she’s just scaled the whole thing up. I don’t think there’s going to be too many Paris Hiltons tarnishing the music industry, but there’ll be some. The social-networking aspect is incredibly powerful. We had a Korean au pere who’s been doing [Myspace predecessor] Cyworld for four years, and pretty much every day she’s on for a couple hours. It’s become incorporated into how people live.
One attribute about really good content is it takes the form of community building. Communication is one of those themes that people are yearning for, and when you break the word down, it means action taken toward the experience of oneness. It’s people doing something where they’re part of a larger group. Youtube has that tenor about it. Friends was a case of community building, in that people the next day would be talking about it at the proverbial water cooler. Really good content has the ability to create that sense of community.
What do you think of the shakeup at Viacom?
I’d be taking a guess, but one interpretation is it goes back to personality and short time frames—how much time is enough to turn something around? CEOs that come in nowadays are given two or three quarters and they better show some kind of traction. And the inexcusability to make mistakes—there’s an element of envy when Rupert Murdoch buys MySpace for $600 million and you didn’t. I don’t know what that would be worth today, but probably 10 times that, so Viacom didn’t get one that right. You can go out and fire people, but what that tends to do is freeze the entire organization from doing any kind of iteration.
So maybe Viacom has more of a fear-based mentality. News Corp. certainly does too, but it’s run as a dictatorship, and as long as the dictator is right on his calls, you’re going to be moving forward.
By Mike Malone