“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.