Window dressing hides what we do well

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Get Back in the Box, promises to be a good read. In a nutshell, he’s saying that for all the noise about innovation these days, it mostly comes from the outside looking in and usually in the form of consultants and their re-thinking, re-branding or re-packaging whatever any particular business is selling — something he calls the American business obsession with “window dressing.”

The age of mass production, mass media, and mass marketing may be over, but so, too, is the alienation it engendered between producers and consumers, managers and employees, executives and shareholders and, worst of all, businesses and their own core values and competencies.

American enterprise, in particular, is at a crossroads. Having for too long replaced innovation with acquisitions, tactics, efficiencies, and ad campaigns, many businesses have dangerously lost touch with the process — and fun — of discovery.

Surely this is true with television news, and I agree with Rushkoff that this is a time for innovation within the core competencies of broadcasting. What is it that we do really well, and how can we innovate within that?

When you cut away all the blue smoke and mirrors of hyperbole (window dressing), television news entities do a few things VERY well.

  • We take people TO the news and we do it live. As Steve Friedman said 25 years ago when he began emphasizing LIVE on “The Today Show,” people want to feel like they’re participating in history. This we do better than other forms of media. The problem, of course, is that this is tough to pull off every day, simply because the events don’t justify the coverage. So we manufacture event status through window dressing, and soon it all just becomes hype.
  • We touch people emotionally. The right combination of writing, pictures and sound can transcend events to make people laugh or cry, and we’re very good at doing this. Of course, not every story justifies this type of storytelling, and when we try to make it so, it just comes off as manipulative window dressing.
  • And because we can touch people emotionally, we can inspire people to action for good. Local television’s involvement in community assistance in this country is one of its true strengths and something for which the industry really doesn’t get enough respect. Of course, as stations move forward with a “cause of the month,” focus is split, and soon it all disappears in the sands of familiarity.
  • We provide our communities with celebrities through the real core competency of a TV station — mass market reach and frequency. We offer role models and people to talk about. But this is the two-edged sword of local news. Live by celebrity; die by celebrity. Lots of window dressing here.
  • We produce complex television in real time. This is another disrespected aspect of local television, but it’s one that offers broad room for innovation. Little window dressing here.
What we THINK we do well is sell ourselves, but it just isn’t true. This, I think, is what Rushkoff is talking about. And perhaps if we paid a little more attention to those areas where we really do excel, the audience might stop fleeing from what we’ve become — an industry increasingly detached and self-absorbed.

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