Take It From TV Networks: Brand Ownership Is Never A Sure Thing

Kevin Spacey knows this to be true. Do you?

Look closely at the TV receiver in your living room – you know, the magic box provided by your cable or satellite company. Eye it carefully.

Does it look like a monster to you?

Well, back in the 1970’s, it sure looked like a monster to the major American TV networks – a fearsome creature that they thought might put them out of business. That’s why they worked as hard as possible to scare people out of even considering paying for TV with ridiculous ads like this one, which indicated paying for TV was the equivalent of turning your home into The Amityville Horror.

Now, flash forward to forty years later, 2013, when those very same networks are now the helpless captives of that monster - and financially dependent on whatever fees they can force it to pay, as the recent CBS-Time Warner conflict demonstrated. Yes, CBS, ABC and NBC – you were right, that monster did indeed have some teeth.

But did the networks have to end up in this precarious situation? What if, instead of putting their resources behind fighting progress, they had actually focused on how to leverage it to their advantage?

We’ll never know, because they, instead, played defense – and tried to safeguard their past at the expense of their future. The final result of that effort is best illustrated by the fact that one of their numbers ended up being completely devoured by the monster - when Comcast took over NBC in 2009.

The networks’ recorded viewership – as a matter of fact, all TV viewership – is declining sharply, largely because TV channels and cable companies alike are bent on gouging as much money as possible from their customers. And now both the monster and its victim are, as a result, at great risk - as many of those customers are tired of paying through the nose. Instead, they’re running in record numbers and are to the Internet where they can see the same programs for free.

Of course, the TV titans aren’t the only ones suffering from this strain of future shock; the music industry committed professional suicide in much the same way at the dawn of the online age.

When the Internet made it possible to get music in a much more convenient and immediate way, the big labels didn’t see fit to take advantage of the new technology – instead, they fought it tooth and nail by suing upstarts like Napster who simplified downloading media files. By focusing on stopping the unstoppable as the TV networks did, however, the big music boys never tried to provide their own online sales mechanism until it was much too late. iTunes, of course, jumped into the breach and took control of internet music sales – and they’re now, as of this writing, on pace to make $13 billion this year.

Now, you might be thinking, what does all this mean to my brand? The answer is everything, especially if its involved in any way in the technology or media sector.

Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey recently made waves with a speech warning film and television executives to embrace the new technologies rather than, once again, wasting time, energy and money in a hopeless struggle against them. His production company did just that and did it very well; earlier this year, his new drama series, House of Cards, was the highest-profile project to ever debut on the Netflix streaming service – and the payoff was substantial for all concerned.

As Spacey noted, "You have this incredible confluence of a medium coming into its own just as the technology for that medium is drastically shifting. Studios and networks who ignore either shift - whether the increasing sophistication of storytelling, or the constantly shifting sands of technological advancement - will be left behind."

You don’t have to look far for examples that confirm the weight of Spacey’s warning. Blackberry recently fell flat on its face with its new Q10 Keyboard Phone release because they waited too long to get it out into the marketplace. Why? Well, because Chief Executive Thorsten Heins said that Blackberry "owned" the keyboard market and they didn’t have to be in any particular rush. Well, Mr. Heins, there was also a time when the networks "owned" television and the record labels "owned" music.

The truth of the matter is no brand "owns" a market anymore, if, indeed they ever did. Consumers want what they want on their terms, not the corporations’, and technology today allows them in many, many cases to get it. When a brand takes its market for granted or resists a change that its customers are clamoring for, those customers are quick to transfer ownership into other hands.

Brands need to recognize that, as far as their market goes, today is not yesterday and tomorrow is going to be a whole different story. Sticking one’s head in the sand is not a viable marketing strategy. Cable TV was never a monster and neither is the Internet. New technologies are not threats, they’re opportunities and if established brands let those opportunities go by, there are plenty of start-ups ready to seize them.

So let’s identify the only monster that is involved in these kinds of scenarios - fear. And let’s agree that brands should never scare themselves away from breakthroughs that can either increase their market share – or reduce them to irrelevance.

The choice is theirs.

[Image: Flickr user Chapendra]

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