Failure Fortune Cookie

The same basic issue is affecting television and radio, film and print. We’re living in the era of media convergence. We’re living in an era when all media is converging into one entity. Further, delivery systems are converging – instead of printed magazines, movies delivered to exhibitors in Goldberg cans for display on “the big screen”, TV and radio delivered by transmitters, we’re heading to an era where all media will be delivered by one channel: broadband internet.

You’ve got to love the words of then-Coke Chairman and CEO E. Neville Isdell at the company’s 2006 annual shareholder meeting, telling the audience, “You will see some failures. As we take more risks, this is something we must accept as part of the regeneration process.”

No part of the entertainment and media industries has escaped the regeneration process. As part of that, we should expect to see some failures. Actually, we should expect to see lots of failures.

Always remember an important business principle: failure breeds success. You can find lots of material on the subject. Here’s one excellent Bloomberg piece on the subject that includes the Isdell quote.

With tthat in mind, let’s meander through some diverse recent media and entertainment developments, some failures and some not.

The New York Times is shutting down their relatively new NYT Opinion app. It failed, and one painful consequence will be lost jobs. At the same time, the Times isn’t charging for its new NYT Cooking app, and the NYT Now app continues as a lower-priced digital option targeted at a younger audience. Then there’s the high-end Times Premiere app.

Think this is a broadside at The Gray Lady? Hardly. Consider this a salute to as old-line and establishment a media organization as you’ll ever find, one that’s doing the hardest thing any mature business can do: experimenting a lot and not being afraid of failure. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and if you read the Times, you know that in an era of print downsizing, the quality and quantity of their work is simply light years ahead of the rest of the country. You also know that they’re looking for the right route into the digital future, and they’re not at all afraid to fail along the way.

Switching to film, Lionsgate is reviving one tentpole series – Twilight – as series of five short films to be distributed exclusively on…Facebook, while hinting that similar treatment will be accorded to The Hunger Games. Let’s see if we’ve got this right, Lionsgate is (1) reviving two massive moneymakers, while (2) acknowledging the audience’s well-known appetite for shorter-form content, and (3) going where the largest available audience is by distributing it on a platform where a skosh over 1.3 billion people can see it? How could that not be brilliant?

Here’s another brilliant experiment: Netflix and the Weinsteins are going day-and-date with the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel heading to SVOD and IMAX simultaneously next summer. Could that turn out to be a failure? Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it. (And, of course, in the time it took to write this post, the Netflix-Adam Sandler deal went down as well.)

Going back to Crouching Tiger, here’s the big fail related to that move: you’ll never believe this (and yes, the italics are there to indicate sarcasm), but certain exhibitors are melting down at the thought of shattering release windows. You’ve got to love the quote from Regal’s spokesman: “[A]t Regal we will not participate in an experiment where you can see the same product on screens varying from three stories tall to a 3-inch wide smart phone. We believe the choice for truly enjoying a magnificent movie is clear.”

In a word, oops.

Hey bro, listen to the jackass who once thought to himself, “If radio stations everywhere would just not mention iPods, we might at least slow down audience erosion for several years.” You can’t stop the future from happening. You may feel like watching a movie on a massive screen is the clear choice for true enjoyment. I might agree with you. Just one thing: in America, we have a mechanism for determining what the choice for truly enjoying a magnificent movie is.

It’s called capitalism. Customers demonstrate their choices by spending money, and a huge chunk of your customers will gladly demonstrate that they choose to consume magnificent movies on 4- and 5-inch wide smart phones, and on 7- and 10-inch wide tablets, and on massive home televisions.

In 1994, at the dawn of the digital era, we could lead the audience around and force them to enjoy content our way. In 2014, failure to give the audience what they want the way they want it will not serve our purposes. It will simply drive the audience away.

If you can’t lead the audience away from their preferred viewing options, why not just go with them? You want to exhibit movies? Do it in your beautiful theaters. Do it on their beautiful smart phones. (And if you’ve got the same Galaxy S5 that I just bought, dang is the display beautiful.) Do what Lionsgate is doing: go where the biggest audience is. Hell, go everywhere there’s an audience. Start finding a way to exhibit everywhere, not just in brick-and-mortar buildings. (And yes, that will leave you competing with Netflix. Go…compete…experiment with ways to create a better, or somehow unique, viewing experience on Regal Online. Keep failing until you find something that works.)

And yes, I’m saying that the desire of many in the film industry to preserve traditional release windows is doomed to failure. The audience’s wants will trump the industry’s. Get used to it. Start experimenting, failing again and again. Keep failing until you succeed.

Let’s circle back to print. Some major magazines are now displaying their wares on Pinterest. If you’re at a female-targeted magazine like Harper’s Bazaar or Better Homes And Gardens, might Pinterest, which is up to 64 million unique users a month, 71% of whom are female be of use to you? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding yes.

Here’s a potential failure: might Pinterest cannibalize their reader base? It almost has to to a certain extent, but that’s collateral damage, a loss the magazines will simply have to live with and overcome. If your readers – your customers – are going anywhere, you’d better be there too. Better to have a presence on Pintrest that (1) engages with your readers and (2) directs them back to your magazine – and particularly your digital offerings – than to simply let your readers spend more time on Pintrest while spending less time with you. You might even gain more than you lose in the bargain.

This post has rambled, but it’s done so for a reason. The same basic issue is affecting television and radio, film and print. The issue is that, as media converges and delivery systems converge – instead of printed magazines, movies delivered to exhibitors in Goldberg cans for display on “the big screen”, TV and radio delivered by transmitters, we’re heading to a point where all media will be delivered by one channel: broadband internet. 

In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. When the medium changes, the message must inevitably change as well.

Get used to that fact. Figure out how to survive and thrive in the quickly-arriving convergence environment. Since no one is smart enough to simply decide how to do that, we have no choice but to experiment. Many of our experiments will fail; a handful will succeed. Just make sure your failures are the kind you make because you’re trying to figure out the new environment (like the New York Times) not because you’re making a doomed-to-fail attempt to hold back the future (Regal).

In case you’re interested in the general subject of failure breeding success, let’s leave this post with some bonus reading. Remember to give yourself permission to fail. Oh, and remember The Unexpected Consequences of Success.

And with that, I hope you go out and fail. I’ve been doing it for years.

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