TV News in a Postmodern World

The Matter of "Getting It"

by Terry Heaton
In one of my previous lives, I was involved in a fundamentalist Christian group that many would probably consider a cult. We took pride in the belief that we shared some secret knowledge about the Bible, and this was often manifested in the use of a common phrase — They just don't get it — when applied to other people.

In the late 70s and early 80s, there was even an evangelical marketing campaign called, "I've got it." Billboards, posters and buttons all proclaimed this slogan as a way to suggest to others that maybe they didn't have it. As you can imagine, this didn't go over very well with the ecumenical crowd.

But times change, and people grow up. I've learned to be suspicious of that phrase now and many others, including my favorite, "There's no question about it." When I hear that these days, I immediately assume that there IS a question about it.

So it's with some trepidation that I say that there's a lot of "not getting it" these days when it comes to new media and technology, especially with my friends in TV news. One reason we don't "get it" is our experience with the first go-around of the Internet. Who can forget the bubble days, when similar cult-like statements and promises were being made? We're justifiably apprehensive.

But where that apprehension blinds us to reality, there's a real problem. That's because even with all the overzealous projections, the bubble era foundation was solid. We're in the midst of the most significant communications shift in the history of humankind. You either believe this or you don't, and your behavior regarding it is determined by your belief.

Former FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, had his own terminology for the change. "Application separation," he said, "is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever." The essential nut of his statement is that one no longer needs to own the infrastructure in order to publish, distribute or broadcast content. This is turning the media world upside-down, and most of the traditional media response, I'm sorry, falls under the category of "they just don't get it."

It's turning the media world upside-down, because smart people now have their hands on the tools that used to be exclusively ours. They're innovating ways to communicate using those tools, and people are responding. Cumulatively, observers call these innovations Media 2.0. This is the new wine of media, and the initial response from traditional businesses has been to try and pour it into the old wineskins of Media 1.0.

This is no small thing. In the old, mass-marketing world, it was essential that all roads flow FROM the media entity, whereas the new model demands the opposite. The road now flows TO the media entity. Local television seems the least capable of understanding this, for our brands are attached to transmitters that beam down on everybody. The only way we know how to make money is to attach ads to the roads that flow away from us and our brands.

So we're clueless when it comes to disruptive innovations that challenge our business assumptions. Our first response is to hope the disruption fails, so we misread and underestimate cues from the disruption. Any failure is magnified to prove the bigger point that everything's fine the way it is. It's the "baby with the bath water" syndrome that's so inherent in businesses confronting disruptive innovations.

In the following graphic, which is a re-worked version of an image from Borrell Associates and Harvard Business School, the Media 2.0 circle is encroaching on the Media 1.0 space. The area of displacement is viewed as a line of defense by mainstream media, so that's where energy and resources are concentrated. We're busy trying to recover lost territory, but the disruption is actually much bigger. And therein lies opportunity, not woe. The reality is the disruption wouldn't be disruptive unless there were possibilities there. We need to see it as our friend — a place where we can innovate — not as a threat.

The circle of disruption threatens to overtake the business being disrupted.

What do we need to "get" before we can play in the new media world?

  1. We are no longer a television station; we're a media company. This is the most fundamental of all the new truths about media, and it applies to any mass marketing entity, be it TV, radio or newspapers. It's crucial to understand, because it defines how we'll proceed. As long as we try to force all of our new business ventures through our brand, we limit not only our options but also our potential vision. And without a vision in this new world, we will surely perish.

    The problem with our brand is that it is linked to an old media entity in a new media world. Our brands won't save us, because media brands don't translate to the Web without the systems, mass-marketing business models, and baggage of our real world operations. Think about it. We may still produce large, cumulative audiences, but viewing habits have changed so much that brand loyalty is irrelevant. It's a commoditized TV world in which we live; it's all the same. We even face irrelevancy in news, because the vast majority of people in any market simply don't watch local TV news anymore. Those audiences are in a free fall in most places and in general decline everywhere. If they stopped following our brand on-the-air, what makes us think they will fawn all over us online?

    So what do we accomplish by driving our shrinking and aging audience to our branded sites on the Web? Not much, and this is why I advise clients to not put their future into a branded portal Website.

    If we can view ourselves as media companies and not television stations, then we can use some of our resources to build revenue-generating businesses that go beyond our brands, and this is what will determine who wins and who loses down-the-road.

    Google, for example, is exploding exponentially, because the company made the decision long ago that it would create the world's largest (searchable) directory of information. The company has little value beyond its database, but it is growing that database every minute of every day. What about local information? Google wants that, too, but we don't have to let them have it. Who will build the local database? There is absolutely nothing stopping a local media company from doing this, but a television station wouldn't even consider it.

    This is just one example of how thinking of ourselves as media companies instead of TV stations opens our minds to possibilities to not only make money but also meet the information needs of the communities we serve.

  2. Application separation works both ways. The more we deny and ignore the realities of the new world, and the more we consider it a threat, the less inclined we'll be to see that we can use the same technologies and energies to compete in areas where TV stations previously never could.

    Remember the case of Kodak. The company wasted energy and resources defending its film business against the disruptive innovation of digital photography. New management embraced the new technology, and now Kodak is clawing its way back to the top. But what about Polaroid?

    Which one are we? We need to embrace the tools of the personal media revolution and use them to our advantage. We're experts in many areas, but we need to point that expertise in a different direction. What holds us back is our belief that we're "professionals" and therefore either immune from the citizens media explosion or above it. As media companies instead of TV stations, however, we can free ourselves of both structural and inertia barriers.

  3. The user is in control. It is impossible to do business in a world where streams must lead back to the local media company unless we first accept that we're no longer in charge. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for traditional media people to "get," because everything about it is counterintuitive to our instincts and training. The law of attraction is our only friend, and we must give up our belief that we can "market" (manipulate) our way out of the demands of the new world.

    As our audiences have shrunk, we've continued to talk only with those who are left behind, while ignoring those who've gone on to discover other ways of meeting their news and information needs. The problem for us is that these new forms are consumer-empowering. They're in charge; we aren't. While we may "get" this, we don't like it, because we don't know how to behave in such a paradigm.

    But while we're in denial, we drift farther away from the people we so desperately need to generate revenue in an unbundled media world.

  4. Transparency is the new currency. All our lives in the TV biz, we've pretended that our viewers don't know what goes on behind-the-scenes, nor do they know the tricks of our trade. The blogosphere, reality shows, and the popularity of insider media — especially that which targets the entertainment industry — have pulled back the curtain and revealed us for what we are. We cannot continue to shove slickness down our viewers' throats, nor can we operate in old ways when people can see that the emperor has no clothes.

    In terms of news, we also can't keep pretending that our audiences trust us the way they once did, nor can we even assume that we speak on their behalf anymore. Gallup measurements show media trust at an all-time low and headed downward.

    As Steven Covey wrote, "You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into." We need to learn that truth and adopt the paradigm of Media 2.0 — if you share your tools and your world with your users (viewers), they'll participate. This means getting off our pedestals and rubbing elbows with our communities. It also means the courage to be transparent, to stop hiding who we are and what we are from the people we're trying to serve.

  5. It's not all or nothing. This is by far the biggest block to real progress in the face of the media 2.0 disruption. We hear things like "mass marketing is dead" and we react negatively, in part, because we intuitively know that's simply not true. There will always be mass marketing approaches to business in our world — even if they're smaller in scale. What Umair Haque calls the "blockbuster" events necessary to create mass audiences are and will be fewer and farther between, and that should be a concern to any mass marketer.

    Do we have to drop ALL mass marketing to succeed in a media 2.0 world? I don't think so, but we do need to develop methods and models that work in an unbundled, individualized media world, and these are definitely at enmity with mass marketing practices. We can and we must learn them, however

    We need to strike the words "always" and "never" from our language, because this is vastly more complex that simple black and white explanations would have us believe. That said, "getting it" includes a little willingness to explore extremes despite how we feel about them.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was an expert on loss, and she wrote an historic book about it called Death and Dying. In it, she opened our eyes to the realities of grieving. Psychologists have expanded the ideas of grieving to include such things as job loss, divorce, and even the empty nest syndrome. Grieving, she wrote, has five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They don't necessarily follow one after the other, but they're all present on the road to acceptance.

And isn't acceptance what we really need now, as our old media models slip away? To the extent that we look the other way, bitch and moan, try to "work together with new media," or wax nostalgic in our own despondency, we're sitting ducks for others not tied to the past. Acceptance is what we need to shake the "don't get it" label and move forward with innovative models that meet the information needs of our communities and bring the roads of business opportunity back to us.

After all, we have a TV station in our arsenal. That gives us a huge advantage over anybody else.