Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Mogul’s Dilemma: Our Mystic Guideposts to Failure

In The Mogul’s New Clothes (Atlantic, Oct. 2009), an article with many interesting insights, I was struck by a paragraph to the final biting point of failure of leadership within the media industry:

“In the media industry, senior executives seem to prefer “strategic visionary” to “first-rate operator” as an appellation. There is nothing wrong with searching for ways to reinforce competitive advantage under threat. But once the barriers have fallen, managers are left with the most unglamorous of activities – improving the efficiencies of their operations.”

The dichotomy of “visionary” and “operator” seems to be a little discussed issue within public broadcasting today. As television, and to some minor extent radio, squarely move into a “post-broadcast” world a lot of the industry’s attention is being overwhelmingly directed towards new forms of media creation and distribution. In other words we are almost totally enamored with the “visionary stuff” over what it takes to be a “first-rate operator.”

As I have written in the past – stealing a great phrase from Rey Ramsey – we operate in a “21st Century Digital Ecosystem”, where audiences are no longer simple bovines happily munching away in the media fields. Rather consumers have evolved from prey to predators themselves; using new tools to aggregate their own content feeds, if not their own networks. Consumers are blithely skipping from technology to technology to feed their own interests and desires. The essential lesson of the digital ecosystem it is a highly personal, highly referential and individual to the person in charge. Some think of this as fragmentation, but in reality it is the creation of a new order that requires new analytics and tools; a new digital ecology.

As I delve more deeply into the economics of public media I am starting to color my thoughts on what are the solutions. While I still believe public media needs to embrace and invest in “multi-platform, multi-application, multi-form” content, we have to struggle with the reality that most, if not all, public media stations are relatively fragile entities. Yes, they need to transform themselves into “digital ecosystem predators”, but what is their capacity, at what rate and at what cost?

My initial reflection on the “mogul’s dilemma” of being visionary versus being a good operator is slightly different for public media. In the new digital ecosystem I don’t think that public media has much chance, in its current configuration to be visionary, or even innovative in the sense of the whole industry. (There is a whole other essay/prescription there…) Rather public media is better placed as an innovative adopter that takes the best of media advances and applies it to the public service media mission. Therefore, rather than a mogul’s dilemma, we have something a bit more pedestrian, especially at the station level: the speed at which we adopt innovation versus a focus on sustainable systematic efficiencies.

Ho hum, until you think about how the resolution of this dilemma is worth hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two or three years, then it starts to get interesting…

While I do not know of any person or institution in public media that is so dull that they subscribe to one side of that equation: “we think we need innovation more than revenue” versus “I live in 1974 and always will”, there are certainly proponents that tend to shade themselves into either camp. Those that live on either extreme are going to fail and that means critical capacity in the public media system will be lost.

There are a number of folks within public media that are pushing very, very hard on the innovation side. They are deeply passionate about the semantic web and implied metadata, mobile gaming, structured data and the full-scale adoption of interactive social television. Their focus is on pushing public media to brink…of what?

While I would not dispute that the bleeding edge innovation will not eventually have profound impacts on media there is a real question on how much they should or will affect public media today.

The adoption of these technology tools are highly challenging to the present leadership and culture of public media. The new technology is being mastered by people in their 20s and 30s and its application is extremely technical and has profound impacts on business models. It is unfortunate that many in the public media world dismiss this new leadership as everything as dangerously destabilizing to just plain confusing.

But, frankly, they have a point… The risk equation for a Ken Ikeda at Bay Area Video Coalition or Avner Rosen at Boxee looks very different than the one held by a CEO at a public media station. At the moment if BAVC or Boxee craters it would be a shame, but the impact would be limited. If KQED (SF) or WNET (NYC) disappeared there are far deeper consequences beyond the immediate loss of jobs and programming. We are talking the potential loss of spectrum, the livelihoods of hordes of independent producers and, while depreciated, a couple of hundred of millions of dollars of assets. Public service media a practiced by a producing public broadcasting station is not equivalent to that as practiced by BAVC or my old digs at One Economy.

What public broadcasting needs more than visionaries are first-class operators, but first-class operators that understand that they are in a new digital ecosystem.

The majority of first-class operators in public broadcasting are first-class at television or radio engineering and/or production. Frankly, they don’t know squat about being an operator in the new digital media ecosystem. They don’t understand the network; the technology stack, the economics of digital content creation, workflow or the business models of distribution. They don’t understand the impact of digital media engagement, nor the importance of audience segmentation. They don’t have the right analytical frameworks, the wrong information dashboards and generally a lack of a coherent digital media strategy.

I think that the real problem lies not in the calcification of the age of the managers, rather the appropriate hesitation of experienced executives who see their margins as just too thin and the lack of adequate (and appropriately structured) risk capital. A wholesale change of leadership is not the answer.

The answer, for me, is mixing three things:

1. A bit of guts to take on new risk even if it means leveraging some of the core assets. (But let’s do it with our eyes wide-open and under the full powers of an experienced media executive.)

2. A bit of new blood by investing change management with people who have a sense of what direction to head in within the digital media ecosystem. (Nobody knows the exact path…)

3. A bit of sense on the part of funders, like my own employer, to restructure our funding from grants to investments; from pilots to impacts; and from casting out seeds to having a coherent planting strategy.

I think that are examples for us to follow in the public broadcasting world. All is not bleak and what is truly depressing is that people within public media, even to the highest offices and boards perpetuate the “sad state of affairs” and how “far we have fallen”. Here are the people I like to watch; who exemplify what it means to be a good operator in the fullest sense of the new digital media ecosystem.

  • Tom DeCarlo at KPBS in San Diego – when he took over he saw the future of reorganization around content not means of transmission and double-down in the future of journalism. He also cleared the path for a couple of smart, hard-charging women who understand the vision and how to execute.
  • Kinsey Wilson & Zach Brand at NPR – totally reformed the interactive division, understood that to create and distribute content that will build audiences you need a strong system development approach, coupled with new types of talent. They have a business vision and are executing against it every day.
  • Jason Seiken & Jon Brendsel at PBS – ditto, ditto and ditto. Their genius understands the power of the PBS platform to lift the whole of the public television broadcasting industry and building the systems to make it work.Jake Shapiro & team at PRX – recruited an all-star team who understand that they can innovate within the public broadcasting business model, rather than just trying to dump it overboard. The leadership knows how adopt innovation and harness that to strategic goals for public media.
  • Tim Olson at KQED – built a strong technology base, talented staff with relentless attention to the bottom line. Tim and his team are deploying new forms and formats of content, building strategic partnerships with Bay Area tech companies in pursuit of improving the user experience with public media.
  • Sally Jo Fifer & team at ITVS – has developed one of the slickest soup-to-nuts video production-distribution-monetization models I have ever seen. She understands her market – independent film producers – and has wrung out every efficiency possible in pursuit of improving the value of ITVS in serving that audience.
  • Rod Bates at NET – is retaining the core value of broadcasting, but understands the importance of enhancing the broadcast with digital tools, especially in the area of education. He is a seasoned media executive who knows when to push and when to stay steady in a marketplace that changes all the time.
Just as I wouldn’t hand my expensive digital camera to my seven-year old while atop a 10 foot boulder surrounded by other boulders and hard ground (again), I wouldn’t suggest handing the reins of public media to those who don’t fully appreciate the spectrum of risk associated with revolutionary change. And yes, we could pick up the pace – reauthorization cometh – and yes we could be more articulate about our strategic goals – not an easy feat in a $2.5 billon dollar disaggregated industry – there is enough innovation and change that is leading public media to very different landscape. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the commercial media industry by equating being visionary with value, rather we should appreciate the first rate operators among us that stock it on our public media shelves everyday.


John Proffitt said...

I totally agree about operators and strategic thinkers as you've presented in your thoughts here. When I started in public media in 2004, I was taken aback by how risk-averse the system was in technology, but also in core services and mission. So while I've personally beaten the drum for moves toward web services, I've also come to realize there's a very deep-seated problem in "the system" that hasn't yet been solved in most places.

It's a mission problem.

What I've found is a lot of folks who built their careers and even their personal identities within broadcasting. To ask them or -- if you dare -- tell them to change, to learn new things and to act in new ways is pretty much an insult to their finely-crafted sense of selves (even if you deeply respect their past work).

But I found more than just entitlement along the way. I also found a loss of Passion and Purpose.

Public broadcasting became a system, an industry, a business. It became broadcasting, it became TV, it became radio -- the platform was the thing and identities were inextricably intertwined with the platform. I've worked with TV engineers that were irritated when asked to solve radio engineering problems because TV Mattered and Radio Didn't. In a world defined by technology platform, how do you have a serious conversation about ethereal things like "mission?"

It seems to me that over the years the high-minded notions of the Public Broadcasting Act have been lost. There's been a failure to renew the mission, to redefine it in modern terms and to find people passionately committed to it. "Broadcasting fulfilled that mission, so why does it need to change?"

It's taken me 5 years to reach the conclusion that the Internet, TV, radio, newspapers -- none of that matters. Those are all technology choices, and they're all commodities now. What matters is what you do with them, and frankly, most public broadcasting companies and leaders haven't committed to this new perspective yet.

But there's one that's on the way. KETC in St. Louis is transforming itself, little by little, into a company on a mission for its community. They're learning the best ways to be the "operator" you call for in this post, and they're doing it across media platforms and out in the community. They originated the "Facing the Mortgage Crisis" project, and they did it because their community needed help and they felt a calling to deal with the issue, not to curry favor with the CPB or other funders.

And it's not been easy. Each of the projects they've undertaken in the last couple of years have been big risks. They didn't have complete funding. They had to bring together teams from legacy and new units to get the work done. They had to invent new methods and go out into a community that they, like most stations, had largely ignored for many years, preferring to broadcast, broadcast, broadcast.

I would encourage you to help stations find their Purpose and build Passion around that. With those two things, the right operators will magically show up -- they'll want to be a part of that Purpose. The strategic thinkers will join up, too, because there's plenty of strategy to work out once you have your broad Purpose defined (or re-defined).

Here's something practical:

Ask stations the two questions I first asked when I joined a public media company back in 2004:

[1] Who are you?
[2] Why are you here?

Very simple questions. You might be surprised how many people across the "system" don't have good answers.

But if they can't answer those questions -- without quoting a tired mission statement -- none of the rest of the debate over operators or strategy will really matter.

P.S. I've never gotten a good answer to my questions. But KETC may be the first to at least SHOW us some answers.

Stephen Hill said...


This is a very good perspective on the state of things in public media and reassures me that there is indeed somebody home at CPB these days. My previous (limited) experience with CPB was very disappointing, but that was almost seven years ago. Hopefully you are representative of the new generation there and they will listen to you.

About your post:

Discussing "moguls" and public media in the same piece is a bit of a stretch. Barry Diller, Sumner Redstone, Brian Roberts...those guys are media moguls. The only mogul I've ever heard of in public broadcasting is Bill Kling.

Interestingly, after operating in semi-cloaked, Wizard of Oz mode for years, he seems to have emerged recently to lead the discussions on system reform that were reported in Current magazine in December 2009. I thought his position was arguably correct, while being self-serving AND short-sighted, all at once.

What do I mean by this? Kling was saying we need stronger, larger stations to navigate the perilous digital shoals. That's self-serving because MPR is the biggest station (group) in the existing network and would only become stronger in his scenario.

But it's short-sighted for an entirely different reason: it's still station-centric. Public radio does need to strengthen its stations, but in my opinion, what public media needs more is

1. a stronger network
2. a national membership program
3. a revenue-sharing business model.

The point is not only to better serve the public, but to strengthen the stations where they need it most — in web and other digital services — and to build on the combination of a strong central entity and a diverse, distributed local presence.

Perhaps you were alluding to something like this in your post when you said "The new technology is being mastered by people in their 20s and 30s and its application is extremely technical and has profound impacts on business models." I could not agree more strongly with this statement. Something has to be done to keep the digital generation engaged in public media, both as consumers and producers.

As a music producer, syndicator and online service provider, I have spent the last 9 years working to master the application of web technologies to our own subscription business model. For better or worse, I have made the transition from being a radio producer to being a web application developer and online music service provider.

Based on this experience I have tried since 2004 to point out that innovation MUST occur in the underlying business models that bind together networks, stations, content creators, and the public.

Because very few in public media are really competent to discuss the underlying technologies (and therefore to grasp the new opportunities they enable) it seems that most of the time is spent dealing with the level above these, like aggregated web services and the social media feature set, while ignoring the much harder and more fundamentally disruptive discussion of the underlying business relationships. I've written up the case for this on my blog here (comment 9) and here.

I also wrote a brief synopsis of these ideas for the the followup to the Station Resource Group "Growing the Audience" report, which I have posted here.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go tinker with our Cascading Style Sheets...

:: Stephen Hill

Rob Bole said...

John - I agree that many times a mature industry has a "passion" problem. The dichotomy is that a mature industry also needs to have people who are just focused on getting the job done; day in and day out.

However, your underlying questions of "who are you" and "why are you here", in my opinion, are right on target. This is the heart of public service media, which I define as "Using media to solve problems that are worth solving."

And I will agree that this type of focus, stemming from the questions you are asking, really brings people back into a passionate response and program of action.

Stephen - I did not mean that public media has moguls per se, rather the premise of the Atlantic article being that the commercial media industry, especially the leaders, have been caught up in the "visionary thing", without having the business plan of execution.

For public media it is exactly the opposite problem; we have many first rate operators, but very few visionaries. And those visionaries that are starting to express themselves, in my opinion, are falling right into the same trap as the media mogul's on the private sector side.

In some ways it is really about where you set your time horizons. Some in public media are urging fast adoption because we already so behind the leading edge of media, but knowing full well that we will take years to full build out the capacity to utilize gaming, semantic web, etc. in our daily organizational lives.

On the other hand, and in a blog post I will be putting up in the next few days, I think there are a number of opportunities to be innovative, but have a recognizable ROI for the system.

In terms of ACTUAL moguls in Public Media, I would count Bill Kling as one of them for all of the right reasons. Other moguls would definitely be Vivian Schiller/Kinsey Wilson (NPR), Jon Abbot (WGBH), whomever will be taking over at KQED, if they get themselves out of the economic funk Al Jerome (KCET)could be counted as a mogul. I think we need a few more moguls in our lives...

Stephen Hill said...


Here in Northern Cal we've had visionaries on every street corner for 50 years, so we don't even consider it a problem -- it's just part of the environment. Arguably it produces some beneficial results for society, but I agree with your point. What are the three most important things in making a business work? Execution, execution, execution. That includes making the right strategic choices at the right times.

My point is actually not about vision OR execution. For at least 10 years, every public media conference has been infested with visionaries from other industries dispensing excellent free advice to public media professionals whom they seem to hold in high regard. These same professionals then retreat to their provincial silos and urban bunkers and (aside from the short list mentioned in your original post and those above) do little, if anything, to actualize those visions.

So in my opinion, what we have here is first a failure to understand the problem comprehensively, then an almost total failure of nerve to rock the boat, ask the really hard questions, and take the risk of even DISCUSSING what a comprehensive solution might look like.

Put less kindly: lack of brains, lack of balls.

Ironically, Clayton Christiansen's description of the typical driving reasons for the "Innovator's Dilemma" don't apply to public broadcasting, in the sense that making the necessary business model changes would neither work against the interests of existing customers OR reduce existing revenues with a lower-priced product.

If done right, everybody would win because you would, in fact, be "growing the audience," service, and revenue.

:: SH

Stephen Hill said...

Note: I describe these ideas more fully on my blog in a post titled "GROWING THE NETWORK."

:: SH