Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Even Largest Media Companies Could Disappear if they Don’t Adapt to Changing Consumer Usage. Does Anyone Remember Korevtte's? Bradlees? W.T. Grants?

That the make-up and competitiveness of television has changed dramatically since the 1980s can be gleaned in the following list of the ten programs with the highest rating since Nielsen began measuring audiences. Only one of the ten is from the time since the start of the fourth network (Fox) in 1986 and that single event was part of the Winter Olympics from early 1994. Four of the 10 were from the 1970s. Since then, not a single Super Bowl, Word Series game or last episode of a popular series could muster an audience to rival the days of limited choice.

Although I haven’t put together the numbers, I would venture that not one network owner would break into the top 10 even if we added together all their corporate-owned programming-- i.e., broadcast and cable networks -- available at any given hour.

Other data I’ve presented shows that the five largest providers of television programming networks (Viacom, Disney, NBC, Time Warner and News Corp) account for a smaller proportion of television viewership than only three owners of three networks regularly aggregated in the 1960s into the 1980s. This undercuts the notion that fewer owners are controlling what more of us choose to watch, certainly if the comparison point is some supposed “Golden Age” of television a decade or more in the past.

Even though they continue to be profitable despite smaller and smaller audiences, the large media companies know that they need to change and adjust to the changing media mix if they are to survive. That could happen if they didn’t morph as they have been. News Corp, for example, recently announced it was buying Myspace.com and some related Web sites for something close to $600 million. I can’t predict whether that is going to be a good investment or not (I would say “not” unless News Corp has some strategy to keep MySpace from being the hot site du jour, only to be replaced by fickle surfers next year).

But it is possible that if today’s media companies simply try to circle the wagons their future is not guaranteed. I recently was leading graduate students in a Strategic Planning class on a case study (by purchase) of Wal-Mart. Here’s a sobering lesson from that case:

“Of the top 10 discounters operating in 1962 – the year Wal*Mart opened for business—not one remained in 1993.”

Korvette’s, W.T. Grant, Woolco, Zayre, Two Guys, among others had been at the top and were gone. More recently, established chains such as Bradlees, Caldor and Ames have closed their doors, usually not voluntarily. Wal-Mart has learned from their mistakes.

We shouldn’t expect to see media companies—no matter how large or seemingly entrenched—stand pat as the technologies change around them, as consumer behavior adjusts to the choices and broader range of technologies available, and as advertisers follow their customers.

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