An open letter to broadcast labor unions

Dear union leader/member,

Like the employers from whom your workers draw their paychecks, the relationship between you and the rest of the world needs to change, or you’re going to end up a net liability to the industry. You’ll do this by accelerating the already light speed shifts that are undercutting the core competencies that have enabled you and your employer to maintain a relationship in the first place.

I know you have the best interests of yourselves, your families and your other members at heart. My father worked the furniture factories in Grand Rapids, so I’m in sync with you. Any employer — broadcast or otherwise — who says that his first loyalty is to his employees is, well, just not to be completely believed. But if you wish to have a seat at tomorrow’s table, you’re going to have to open your minds to a different way of viewing the problem of self-interested broadcasters.

The disruptive innovations threatening all of broadcasting stem from, as Glenn Reynolds puts it in his book “An Army of Davids,” the triumph of personal technology over mass technology. You cannot overlook this, as you view the future well-being of your organizations and your members. Nobody’s making this up. The threat is real.

First of all, specialization is history. A part of this business disruption is that we’re returning to an age when higher value is given to those who can do more — the versatile generalists. Think about it for a minute. Our need for specialization has diminished as technology has given us tools like calculators and the internet, so credentialed specialists have a harder time validating their place in the culture based solely on credentials. This impacts professionals more than the trades, but the impact is also being felt there, as people increasingly take on projects themselves. Your position in the culture is based on specialization, so you’re fighting a shift that’s bigger than you may realize.

Secondly, by clinging to your model, you’re actually preventing you and your members from arming themselves against the business disruption, and nowhere is this truer than in the industry of broadcasting. For less than a thousand dollars, a single person can now become an entire production company or TV station. Granted, this person won’t be able to compete with your “quality,” but that’s a dangerous fall-back position. Why? Because the eyeballs you’re competing with don’t care as much about that quality as you do. Moreover, the technology keeps getting better, smaller and cheaper, and eventually even the quality argument won’t stand up.

Thirdly, while the network big boys and large market people you work with are pulling their videos — the ones your specialists helped create — from sites like youTube.com, other people’s contributions continue to capture the eyeballs there that once (or increasingly never) viewed only your work.

Consider the case of David Lehre, the 21-year old amateur film-maker from Washington, Michigan. His parody of the MySpace.com Website has been viewed by more than 6-million people on various sites like youTube, and he’s now been recruited for MTVU. He started making movies in 10th grade when he and his friends couldn’t get parts in the high school drama department’s presentation of “Little Women.” Here’s what he told the Los Angeles Times:

“I thought, ‘Let’s make a movie.’ They’re like, ‘Do you know how to make a movie?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ll figure it out,'” Lehre said. “I was sick of other people deciding if I could entertain or not. I thought, if they won’t give me a chance, then I’ll make my own movie.”
As he gets sucked into the vortex of Hollywood’s institution, Mr. Lehre may succumb to the status quo (or he may not), but the point is he’ll leave behind (and inspire) thousands of other 10th-grade versatile generalists who’ll continue to grab the eyeballs that are making their own viewing choices these days.

Frankly, if you want to really help your members, you’ll consider some radical ideas.

  1. Merge with other unions that represent broadcast workers, so that you give your members freedom to become more versatile. Versatility may seem like insanity to you, but your involvement in this will guarantee that such versatility isn’t used to reduce the labor force (as it might be if it was mandated through the negotiating process). The notion that versatility automatically leads to loss of jobs is an illusion.
  2. Insist in contract negotiations that employers provide mid-career training in new technologies that will enhance, not hinder, the future for your members.
  3. Be proactive about all of this. Fear is a corroding influence that is hurting your members and their families in the face of disruptive innovations. Be a light to them, not one who continues to force your fellows deeper into the closet of a closed mind.
  4. Consider how the triumph of personal technology can benefit you or your members beyond their traditional paycheck. By exposing yourself to these tools, you might actually birth new ventures and find a new place for yourself and your members. One thing’s for sure; that’ll never happen, if you fight it.

Organized labor has always been there to give a voice to the little guy in the top-down, modernist paradigm. That technology is now giving them voices in other ways doesn’t mean that there’s not a need for you and your efforts. Frankly, you’re likely to find that the need is even greater, because versatile generalists certainly are ripe for exploitation by profit-minded individuals and companies. You’ll miss that opportunity, however, by hiding from reality (the disruption) and insisting that you can co-exist in the change without changing yourselves.

Sincerely,

Terry Heaton

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