Left Coast Bias: Are You Just Keeping Up With the Joneses?


We are in one of the strangest times the television business has ever seen. Almost the entire industry is in a holding pattern. Everyone is waiting around for someone to figure this all out. There is an assumption that someway, somehow a model will be discovered to return the TV business to its glory days.

Sure, there are risks being taken and strategies being honed. But objectively, when you examine your own strategic planning—especially on the digital side—how much of what you are doing is just keeping up with the Joneses?

How much of what you are doing is just because everyone else is doing it, even though deep down you really have no idea where the payoff is and may even disagree with what you are actually doing? I know when I look in the mirror and ask myself the same thing, I am not necessarily fond of the answer. If you haven’t already asked yourself the question, now may be a good time.

Take the ridiculous amount of coverage devoted to the death of Michael Jackson. Just talk to some executives in the news or network business. Ask them if they really thought the pop star’s death deserved all the coverage, much less the heaping of praise on a person who had been a punch line right until the moment he flat-lined.

But the story had media-instilled legs, so everyone just kept ramping up the hype. Everyone was doing it, so no one really took the time, or had the guts, to use any semblance of proper perspective until the inevitable backlash finally kicked in last week.

The problem is much bigger than one tabloid-friendly news story, however. It seems to have crept into too much of what we do, especially on the digital side.

Take the ongoing debate—which continued last week at the Sun Valley Conference—over giving away Web content for free. I have heard the arguments from Hulu backers, but Hulu may be the perfect example of my point. They say they have to combat piracy. They say if they just get to two pre-roll ads before every show’s segment, they can mimic television CPMs. They say that they could sell the thing off if they wanted.

I have no problem saying I think we will look back on the current form of Hulu as a massive mistake. I have talked to plenty of network execs—including from companies that own the site—who agree with me that Hulu as it stands is a terrible idea, in that it gives content away for free too soon after the original airing and with minuscule payback for the content holders. It trains consumers to dodge the one delivery pipe that can somewhat fund any semblance of a development process.

So we’re all just sitting back and waiting for someone else to figure this all out, since there is probably no first-mover advantage (unless you are a tech company with something like iPhone). And that can lead to paralysis if you aren’t willing to bet big, or just as important, know when to get out of something that isn’t working. Just ask the high-ranking execs at News Corp. who wanted to sell MySpace three years ago.

(Note to the Twitter guys: Sell a big chunk, if not all of it, now before you become the next MySpace. If Rupert or Google wants it, take the money and run.)

Unfortunately, there is absolutely zero reason to expect any sort of turnaround in 2009, no matter what BS any media execs try to serve up on their upcoming earnings calls.

The challenging times will continue for a while. And so my question to you is, in the meantime, are you really being strategic, or are you just keeping up with the Joneses?

E-mail comments to ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com