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Set Your Sights High

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Is your company a network or a cable channel? It's a critical taxonomy, and the question hit me as I was watching the Emmy's a few weeks ago. It's relevance was confirmed when I was reading the follow-up press coverage.

It's clear to everyone -- and that includes the networks themselves -- that the cable industry is so far ahead of the broadcast industry that is isn't even funny (well, at least not as funny as "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, winner of the "Outstanding Variety Show.")

The level of innovation, experimentation -- and resultant success -- is undeniable. Indeed, the difference between the networks and cable is so defined, so crisply illuminated, that I believe it can serve as a useful metaphor for thinking about your own company and how you produce "product" -- because that is what entertainment entities do -- for your customers. If you want to emulate the cable model, and I would if I were you, here are some basic rules to follow.

Don't believe that people won't pay for quality. They will and they do. More viewers now shell out each month for cable than watch free TV. Yet so many businesses make the mistake of competing on price because they lack the requisite confidence in their products. They also don't give their customers enough credit for recognizing quality on even subtle levels of discrimination.

Where do you fit in? Very few entrepreneurial businesses can succeed by being the low-cost provider. So why is so much time spent on figuring out how to remove cost from the system, and so little time spent focusing on adding value?

Don't make it easy for new ideas to get torched. Structure and an environment that recognizes freshness are everything. Robert Greenblatt, who is president of entertainment at Showtime (and has had an important role at both the networks at HBO), was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the "layers" of executives squelched originality. "At the last minute, someone comes into the process and pulls the rug out from the executives who've been nurturing the show."

How is your business organized? You don't need to be the size of NBC to have slowly created built-in boundaries to innovative thinking. Who are the idea squelchers in your company, and what traps exist that neutralize innovation? Start thinking about that right now, and do something about it.

Don't repeat yourself. The curse of the networks is that they seek comfort in extending what worked in the past, rather than veering off, excitedly, into new terrain. As John Landgraf, president of entertainment at FX commented in the same Times article, the networks have become "creatively conservative."

What's interesting to me is that we all laugh at the networks penchant for one-degree tweaks, but how often in our own businesses do we default to the safety of the tried and true? The courage to try what hasn't worked is the essential hinge that separates the network from the cable approach to growth.

Work with outsiders who challenge you. Don't be reluctant to be challenged, and invite dissent from third-party partners. The networks specialize in rounding out the edges of those they employ and engage, enforcing conformity. (It's easy to fall into that trap when you sign the check.) If you want to be the cable equivalent in your industry, actively attract those who are notoriously difficult to work with.

There are no guarantees that you can turn out the equivalent to "The Sopranos" -- which, by the way, was rejected by all the networks -- in your industry. But you'll never achieve the cable industry path to success by setting your sights low.


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