The Fox on The Death of TV

So I’ve been attending one of the executive programs at Rotman, my b-school alma mater. We were brushing up on our Strategy and Ajay Agrawal, one of Rotman’s rock star profs (associated with über-cool entrepreneurship incubator, The Next 36) talked about Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma. For those who have not read it, it is about how the best-run, most-successful companies can be unseated by disruptive new entrants to the market. An example is playing out before our very eyes as internet tv takes a run at cable.

Jon Orlin of Tech Crunch declares the “Death of Cable TV, Really.” It’s a great piece. A really great piece. (Stop reading me — yes, I’m talking to all two of you  — and go read it now.) Google and Apple are taking a direct shot at cable TV, as are Netflix, Hulu, Boxee…  And cable subscribers are down. The cable guys will be OK – after all , internet tv is great for their cable-based modem data business — until someone takes aim at that too. The networks, however, are spooked and have responded as all big firms do when the disruptive ankle biters begin to swarm: they rattle their sabres (read: ABC, CBS, and NBC blocked their content from Google TV.) We might recommend that these fine folk read Jeff Jarvis at some point. Perhaps right after they stop at Tower Records to buy that new album. Oh.  Right…

Orlin makes a compelling case that no matter how much people stomp their feet in protest, Google TV is coming. Their analytics will be game changing. People will now have accurate information to show exactly who is watching what. Of course, this is making some people quite nervous. As CrunchGear’s John Biggs elegantly put it, “I’m absolutely sure that the broadcasters don’t really want to know how many people are really watching America’s Fattest Bachelor Dance Off.” They don’t really want to know how many people who are seemingly watching the show are not in the room, are asleep, or are without all of their faculties. They certainly don’t want their advertisers to know that the remaining six sober, conscious, non-bankrupt viewers are, in fact,  skipping the commercials because that thing their neighbour uploaded onto YouTube is far more clever than anything to come out of an ad agency in years.

The signs are here. We are a bespoke society and we want our half-caf extra foam frappawhatsits while we listen to mashups on our iPhones. We do not want to sit down in a prescribed place at a specific time to watch something somebody we don’t know has told us we should like. Perhaps there is a wonderful business providing broadcast feeds to retirement homes. For the rest of us, however, mass media is done.

So why are companies in this space not getting with the program? Why are they protecting their legacies when the signs are clear the legacy is dead? We know how these disruptive technologies work: a whole book was written on them for Pete’s sake. Why is everyone failing to address the elephant (or, in this case, the million hyperactive, well-capitalized jackrabbits) in the room.

Big Cable, Big Broadcasting, Big Anything, really, are hedgehogs. They know one thing. They know control. And when faced with a disruptive technology they roll into a ball and stick out their quills: they lock us in with contracts, threaten to withold content, try to get regulations to change on their behalf.

They need to be foxes. They need to be agile and flexible and with 50 different game plans they can execute at any time. They need to fill their companies with people who think critically. Who can make decisions effectively. And who are constantly scanning their environment for opportunities and threats. They need to be filled with people are not afraid to speak up when the door to the chicken coop is open or the farmer has loaded his gun. They need  less Godfather and more Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Change is hard, but failure is harder. Time will tell how these companies react in the face of disruption. No doubt, we’ll watch it unfold online…

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