The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
The On-Demand Trap
August 2006

by Terry Heaton

Let's pay a visit to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Media and their spoiled two-year old, Demand. This day is like most other days in the Media home with little Demand wanting what he wants when he wants it. In stereotypical parenting fashion, Mr. Media does the manly things, including spending time in the workshop crafting new toys for his son. It makes him feel so good to be able to do this, and he thanks God every day for the gifts and skills (and tools) he possesses in order to make his son feel happy.

It also offsets his role as disciplinarian.

Mrs. Media, on the other hand, is charged with the up-close and personal responsibilities of catering to Demand's wants and needs. She feeds him, clothes him, and comforts him when he's feeling down. She assesses his toy desires and relays them to her husband. When Mr. Media finishes a new toy, he gives it to her to pass along to his son. This is the way it's done in the Media home. Demand doesn't want his father to give him the toys; he wants his mother to do that, and, after all, he is the demanding one in the household.

As the boy grows, who do you think will have the most value to him, his father or his mother? It's not the maker of the toy who holds the affinity position but the one who gives it to him, and this is the problem with the whole on-demand media frenzy currently underway. This may seem a silly analogy, but is it really?

Did the users of youTube give their loyalty (and eyeballs) to youTube or NBC during and after the whole "Lazy Sunday" fiasco? Do users of iTunes give their attention to ABC or iTunes (or their iPod) when they download the latest episode of "Lost?" When users add an RSS feed to their favorite customizable start page, they may be thankful for the feed, but where are they enjoying its contents?

Local television stations used to enjoy the affinity position with people in their communities, and that was no small part of their status and success. Many old-timers will relate to an angry viewer who was upset because something interfered with "his" or "her" station. This love affair was similar to what certain — and very smart — web applications are experiencing today, and this is a big problem for local broadcasters. When young people run to Google or Yahoo or MySpace and can't name the four networks, well, that doesn't seem too hopeful for the future of broadcasting.

For decades, the networks have been in the content-providing business, so it doesn't matter to them (or it shouldn't) if their programs go one way or another in the future. But not so with network affiliates, because their core competency is built on this idea of the Mrs. Media position. This is why it is so terribly dangerous for local broadcasters to get caught up in the on-demand frenzy and attempt to seize the Mr. Media position as their only hope for the future.

Clearly, it's smart strategy to offer content in an unbundled fashion. There's money to be made and multiple platforms to explore. But it is foolish strategy to assume that such a position is all that's required for local stations (local media in general) to survive online in the long term. There are three profoundly important reasons for this.

The Personal Media Revolution
The disruptive innovation that poses the biggest threat to local media companies isn't multiple platforms for content distribution; it's the triumph of personal technology over mass technology. In this light, betting the ranch on an on-demand strategy is a pure and insane form of denial. It IS a revolution, and guess who they're revolting against?

A whole new world is growing up around us that doesn't give a hoot about us or our dilemmas. Energized by discontent with institutional media, very low barriers to entry, the simple joy of creating media, a profound sense of community, a deep weariness with hyperbole, and many other forces, people are taking matters into their own hands and having a ball doing it. The younger people are, the more they're involved in this.

As Gordon Borrell says, "The deer now have guns," and THIS is the essential problem for traditional media. It is foolish indeed to invest all resources in an on-demand strategy in the face of this disruption, especially when there are unlimited opportunities WITHIN the disruption.

A social phenomenon
Doug Rushkoff argues effectively that the web is a social phenomenon, not a media phenomenon or a technological phenomenon. This makes traditional media people uncomfortable, because it demands a response other than the content-provider safe haven. For all the hype about "on your side" or "CBS cares" or "coverage you can count on," the truth is these are just one-way marketing slogans -- words that mean nothing compared to actual behavior that insults people and pushes them away. You can't talk your way out of something you hyped behaved your way into.

Involving yourself with real people in a real online community setting takes a skillset and values that most broadcasters don't seem to possess.

If, as the Cluetrain crowd asserts, markets are conversations, then the web is the new marketplace and all "content" is commoditized to a point where it's a conversation starter at best or merely a diversion at worst. Either way, the "content" concept is far down the priority list of the marketplace, and interactivity with human beings is number one. According to the Pew Internet Research team, people report that more than half of all internet users say that the internet has helped bring significant improvements in communicating with their friends and family, and email is still the number one use of the web across all demographic groups.

Moreover, to paraphrase one of the Cluetrain authors, Doc Searls, the whole notion of media as an "object" that passes through "pipes" on its way to a "destination" is very industrial age and railroadesque. "Consumers" of media are not people at the end of the pipe — mouths opened wide — who are swallowing content and crapping cash. The rules here are different — and threatening to those who don't know how to play nice.

The value of the edge
New media economics guru Umair Haque has coined many new terms in his efforts to help people understand the economic forces of the new world. One of his most important concepts is that of "the edge" — the place at the end of one's "reach" where new media meets end user. Where one's core competency is failing, Haque teaches, one must explore edge competencies and opportunities.

This is another profoundly important reason why a strategy that involves only the providing of on-demand content is foolish and dangerous. If the greatest value is at the point of use, then distancing oneself from that point by becoming only a content provider reduces one's value. This is why Jeff Jarvis can make the statement, "...the future of media is not distribution, itís aggregation."

Media consultant and strategist, John Hagel, writes that media companies will have to make a decision if they want to be in the product business or the relationship business:

Of course, media companies have elements of both embedded in their companies today, but their hearts and minds are firmly in the product business. Hereís the test: how open is the media company to providing access to third party content on behalf of their audiences? If the answer is not very open, the company is primarily a product business. If the answer is very open, then the company is primarily an audience relationship business.

...one of the consequences of the growing relative scarcity of attention (is that) anyone who can help audiences connect with the most relevant and engaging content will be richly rewarded.

Not only does the "product business," as Hagel calls it, have limited ability to sustain serious long-term revenue, it's also at the most expensive end of the content/delivery model. Why paint yourself into that corner voluntarily?

Few people understand disruptive technologies and innovations like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Christensen's 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, is a seminal work in the field of business disruptions and is even more appropriate today than it was when it was written.

In a 2001 interview with CIO Magazine, Christensen noted that those who survive business disruptions are those who view the disruption as an opportunity for growth. This advice strikes at the heart of the issue of Mainstream Media and the Personal Media Revolution, and it's something local broadcasters would do well to consider.

If you look back in history, the disruptees always viewed new technology as a threat. In reality, they were all poised on the brink of a big growth opportunity. But because the way they reacted was first to discount this innovation as meaningful and second to frame it as a threat, they ended up getting killed. So the first thing is to look at disruptive technology as a growth opportunity and not as a threat.

...One of the litmus tests is that, in almost every case, a disruptive technology enables a larger population of less skilled people to do things that historically only an expert could do. And to do it in a more convenient setting. In hundreds of industries, this is a very common characteristic. So whenever CIOs are looking at an investment, they just need to remember that sometime in the future, somebody is going to figure out a way for an even less skilled population of people to do the job that now more skilled people have to do.

This is precisely the issue with the triumph of personal technology over mass technology, and it offers amazing opportunities for local media companies. If you're a local station, for example, pick a local information niche and go after it as if you weren't a TV station (or radio station or newspaper). What would you do and what would you build that would meet that need effectively and efficiently? I promise you it won't be an on-demand piece of content.

Because here's the deal. The tools available to everyday people that are turning the media world on its head are also available to professional organizations. You don't have to approach everything with a $100,000 solution when $10,000 will do just fine. If aggregation is where its at (and I believe that it is), then build aggregators. Let other people be the content creators and move yourself to the edge. Not only is it fun there, but that's where the profitability is going to be downstream.

The affinity position of Mrs. Media is smart strategy.

© Terry Heaton