The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
Overcoming Formula Addiction
February 2005

by Terry Heaton

You can find him in every engineering shop, a strange fellow tucked away in some corner who just doesn't seem to click with everybody else. His creativity begins "out there," where different drum beats beat. The story is told at a large hi-tech company in the South of a power problem with a new device that had stumped the best minds in the building. They reluctantly handed the widget to the guy with funny hair, who immediately retired to his corner of the shop. He didn't sleep for three days and emerged smiling with the problem solved.

What's most intriguing about this story is that he had found a way to bypass three-fourths of the processing steps that the engineers had deemed necessary to make the widget work, and it was this revelation that led to the solution. Impossible, they said with shaking heads. Impossible. The engineers were blocked by their own formulas.

As we look around us, there is without question a revolution underway in the information, media and entertainment worlds today. The revolution is a creative revolution — a revolt against the formulas that Modernist business logic demands — and when this tidal wave has swept over all, those still clinging to their formulas will find that these anchors have done nothing except take them to the bottom of the sea. This is especially true for the business of broadcasting and the people who work therein.

Despite all the wonderful inventions that logic has given us, the truth is logic and creativity cannot exist in the same space, for they are opposites. Where logic has dominion, creativity can only work within already defined parameters, and that is logic's downfall. For while life itself is often logical and ordered, chaos has equal footing, and attempts to manage life will always fail.

The basic problem with any formula is that parts of it are based on assumptions from previously-stated axioms. This locks any formula to the past despite tangible evidence from the guy with the funny hair.

What is it about formulas that make them so seductive, even in what should be a creative environment? While there is a sense of safety that comes with something known, the truth is that we're all searching for what follows the equals sign. Two plus two is the problem. Four is the answer, and it is answers we seek. So hope is the real attraction — the source of the addiction — a hope that success and happiness lie just beyond the equals sign.

All of the institutions of the West promote this hope.

  • Politics and government = laws and security
  • Business = wages and products
  • Religion = comfort and strength
  • Education = knowledge and careers
  • Media = information and entertainment
  • Medicine = health and well-being
  • Finance = resources and wealth

With addiction comes dependence — and that's just fine with the institutions — but ultimately, the dependence fails and the addict crashes and burns. And, like any other addiction, this one offers only the illusion of betterment. All around we see the failures of Modernist institutionalism. The blue smoke and mirrors are being revealed for what they really are — the false promise of hope beyond the equals sign.

Within each institution exist the formulas of its validity, a series of rules that it follows — primarily to assure its own future. Each serving its own best interests, the promises to the society as a whole take a back seat, and people aren't very happy about it. For the formulas are there to direct the masses in an endless cycle of promise and failure.

And so people are taking matters into their own hands, and technology is making it happen.

  • Newspapers will increasingly get into local television via the Web — opening the door for potential jobs for current TV news people. This trend has just begun, but it will accelerate during 2005 as newspapers capitalize on the revenue opportunities offered by online video advertising. The Associated Press will be providing more video feeds for its print members, and papers will put people on staff to shoot video of local news events. This will cut away at the core competency of television stations in the market. Look for more papers to begin providing actual TV newscasts online in 2005.
  • Broadcasters are stuck in their formula: License + tower + mass audience = money. This is a tried and true formula, but let's look at how it's under assault.

    The license grants a station exclusive use of prescribed analog bandwidth for broadcasting a television signal. The government wants that bandwidth for other purposes, so the FCC is moving broadcasters to digital bandwidth and requiring a digital signal. This has already happened in several countries, but by moving the mandate for digital to 2009 in this country, the FCC is helping broadcasters cling to their old formula and thereby assisting in the death of broadcasting altogether. In another five years, digital communications will have advanced to the point where broadcasting a single signal will be irrelevant. WiFi, WiMax and yet to be created technologies all undercut the value of that one-to-many license. Broadcasting itself needs to be redefined for the license to retain its value.

    The tower is an expensive tool that turns the license into a television signal. Usually found on the highest ground around, these things reach into the heavens to rain down their signals on the households the license allows them to serve. Two-thirds of U.S. households, however, now have cable to their homes, and the value of the license has been transferred to cable and satellite providers. This begs the question; do you really need a tower to be a broadcaster anymore?

    The biggest chink in the armor of broadcasting's formula is the concept of mass marketing. The real value of beaming that signal over the community occurs when multiple households (many multiple households) tune in to watch something at the same time. When this happens, broadcasters can send commercial messages to those homes and get paid for the limited airtime. But mass marketing is going the way of the Wooly Mammoth, because technology is bringing to the surface the truth that there is no demand for unwanted messages. Fragmentation alone isn't the problem. Human nature is, and broadcasting — the penultimate mass marketing tool — needs to find another core competency.

    If the three elements to the left of the equals sign are disintegrating, the conclusion of the formula must be as well. Yet broadcasters cling to the false promise of hope that their addiction demands.

    Another example is a current discussion about Website design. At AD:TECH in New York, executives spoke of a new paradigm that Web publishers must acknowledge — the growing irrelevance of the home page. CEO & Publisher Caroline Little noted that coming in through the home page is an old model and coming in sideways is the new method of arrival for most users. The panel agreed that every page is a home page. RSS and search (Google) enable users to bypass all the unwanted messages of the portal and go directly to what they're seeking. This is a terribly significant shift and one that publishers simply MUST accept, because it impacts design of the entire Website.

    And yet, the highly-esteemed research firm, Jupiter Research, came out with a recent report giving publishers hints for fighting this. Here is Jupiter's marketing on the report.

    Heightened by the industry's focus on search, the Internet has come to be seen as an on-demand, "pull"-oriented, consumer-driven medium. But content presentation tactics actually work in driving user behavior—you can herd the sheep (emphasis mine).

    Jupiter is playing to the formula addiction of the status quo, because there's a dollar sign attached to it. In so doing, they have to ignore the reality that people are sick and tired of being herded like sheep. This is the denial of formula addiction.

    Video Weblogs (vlogs) form another opportunity for denial for broadcasters. This is the most dangerous denial, for these are the embryos of the new form of video content delivery. Anybody can do a vlog, and that's the blind spot that broadcasters can't (or won't) see. There is so much money attached to the status quo in terms of "professional" equipment and staffing that managers automatically dismiss competition from upstarts like Rocketboom in New York. This wonderfully creative vlog lives outside the broadcasting formula while meeting information needs of its youthful users, and broadcast companies need to pay attention.

    We live in a remarkable time in human history. We've longed for the days when the "smartness quotient" of our culture would go up, and technology — including the Internet — is actually making that happen. But while we rejoice, we also tremble, for we miss the comfort and promise of the formulas of the status quo. Broadcasters, if you cannot rise to meet the challenge to overcome your addiction, you will lose it all.

    Here are broadcasters' Twelve Steps to recovery from the addiction to formulas:

    1. Admit that you're fighting a battle you cannot win. Surrender to the truth.
    2. Come to believe that technology can restore you to profitability.
    3. Make a decision to give creativity preeminence in your company for a season.
    4. Make a fearless and searching inventory of your resources.
    5. Bring in people — including your viewers — who've already experienced the transformation.
    6. Become ready to admit the deficiencies of your formulas.
    7. Ask everyone — including your investors — to remove the limitations of their addiction.
    8. In whiteboard sessions, make a list of things that are possible with your resources.
    9. Try to implement changes wherever possible, except where to do so would undercut your core competency.
    10. Continue to search for creative solutions.
    11. Improve your constant contact with trends in technology, so that you can adapt and adjust wherever possible.
    12. Having had an awakening that formulas can be self-destructive, practice keeping creativity at the forefront, so as to avoid the seduction of transferring your addiction from one formula to another.

    Don't wait. Begin this process today. The doorway to the new world is before you. All you have to do is open it.

    © Terry Heaton