Left Coast Bias: This Is Gonna Hurt a Little Bit


In general, I consider myself pretty unflappable. For instance, I haven't had a legitimate panic attack since 1995. And I don't know from angry grudges—even against, say, Northwestern University, which rejected my undergrad application.

(And it's not like I still show bitter joy toward their pathetic athletic department, just because I ended up at Boston University, home of hockey's national champion Terriers.)

But I got scared half to death recently, and if you work in the television business and had been with me, you also would have been wishing you strapped on the Depends first.

I went back to my old business school, UCLA's Anderson School of Management, as a guest lecturer in an M.B.A. class. I was talking about how the current television model has been methodically picked apart in recent years by the technologically induced shift in viewing habits.

And those M.B.A.s put the fear of God into me by hammering home just how much faster we need to change our ways, or more to the point, our models.

When I took them through the current model of network television, viewing habits and advertising, I felt like I was explaining why New Coke was a great product.

This was a group of younger, probably somewhat well-off, educated men and women with zero investment in the old ways of doing things. They had become happily accustomed to getting the milk for free, and didn't see that genie going back in the bottle.

There were actually very few cord-cutters, but nearly all had watched a show on Hulu in the last month. And when I asked how many of them would be willing to pay even a little bit if the free tap got turned off tomorrow—you could hear crickets.

To quote Astro, that great Jetsons sage: Ruh-roh.

This is a group that advertisers dearly want to reach, but one that dares marketers to come find them. They want a free, on-demand world and they don't understand why they haven't gotten it yet. They can't figure out why television and the Internet haven't met in one box yet, and they don't care who gets it right so long as someone does, and soon. They don't know a CBS show from an ABC show, and they don't care.

The idea of “audience flow” within television was unheard of to them. They don't get why ABC and CBS think the Leno move will automatically mean more viewers for them.

(Neither do I, for the record; NBC only averaged a 2.2 at 10 p.m. in a recent week, so Leno won't free up that many viewers, even if they all watched CBS or ABC, which they won't.)

Now, it's not like this group has all the answers. If they were so smart, they wouldn't have needed to go back for M.B.A.s. Take it from an M.B.A. so behind the times he still doesn't have a Twitter account.

But they did allow me to perform an exercise everyone in TV should do with regularity, and that is to have someone call you a dinosaur.

TV execs like to say their kids are their individual focus groups. That's not enough. You need to get out of your little vacuum and in front of a group of younger people like this, people who are not only advertiser-coveted but are smart enough to pick apart everything we believe in.

It's gonna frighten the crap out of you—this was as close to Scared Straight as I ever hope to get. But once you catch your breath, you'll be better for it.

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