Thursday, September 19, 2002

The title of this Web log is View Toward the Edge. The "edge" of the market of the industry, of the enlightened consciousness - is always where new stuff happens, where new stuff comes from. As products and ideas mature, the move toward the middle, they become accepted, standardized, internalized. The edge shakes up those ideas, causes us to question tradition, disturbs the status quo. Oh my! Well, this log is dedicated to the edge because I want to point people in the direction of things coming at them. Whether dangers or opportunities - they are all warnings to Watch Out - your life is about to change.

So it is ironic that AOL is going about the process of re-discovering the edge they thought they had passed so long ago. In fact, they had become frozen in their tracks by a huge bureaucracy, and a not very imaginative leadership whose mantra was "the old way got us where we are - and we're on top - so what could possibly be better?"

As critics have been pointing out for some years now, there is much that could be better about the AOL service, the thinking man's/woman's equivalent of chewing cardboard.

As AOL now accepts that the rest of the world's that there needs to be new kinds of content to justify a broadband expense, they are groping for "new ideas" to help them tackle a new marketplace. TOO LATE!! The new ideas they are looking for are already in their files - they've been there for a while - among all the creative approaches the AOL-conquered companies threw at the mothership, which bounced off the heavy armor of not-invented-here.

But being the gracious kind of guy I am, I want to help. There are four concepts that have always worked - given the right premise, that is. (One of the challenges of a group of bureaucrats running a creative operation is that bureaucrats never give credit to dumb ideas. They will say - Oh we tried that before and it didn't work - never crediting the possibility that the first iteration may have been a dumb idea - invalidating only that idea - not the whole concept.)

One of those concepts is porn. Porn always works. AOL is not going to do porn. So that cuts the viable concepts from exploiting online in broadband mode to three.

Tied to these categories of opportunity are a few operating rules: The thing must be promoted, buzz must be supported, it must be a regular occurrence, and it must be at a predictable and stable time. Some of these rules involve money, some are just plain common sense.

The three categories, of course, are games, events and dramas. AOL has had a game online for years that has addicted hundreds of thousands of people. And, of course, games have made TV programmers happy periodically since time began - most recently with two biggies - Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (ABC) and Survivor (CBS). You have to keep in mind that if ABC had tried to bring back Password, or CBS had thought up The Runner first - success may not have been near at all. It's the right concept - the buzz it creates - at the right time.

Events are similarly tricky (ok, it's ALL tricky). The Olympics drives viewership particularly if there's a local star or a controversy. But the Super Bowl is not likely to be a big winner online - that tension, anticipation and excitement has to be translated into something that works online. And maybe it's a weekly event - maybe it's an election every week - Maybe it's American Idol every week. But it has to be something many many people care about.

Dramas can be the hardest of all - unless you employ a trick or two (no, I'm not going to completely spill my guts here - you folks have to figure something out for yourselves). The most obvious example today is The Sopranos - but over the years dramas have crowned the ratings - Dallas, ER etc. The thing about soap operas is that they work in many media. They started in radio and obviously made the successful transition to TV. And today the soaps drive a fairly lucrative print component as well. With the right characters, pacing and plotting (pretty much in that order), people can be led to care enough to spend money.

Now, a few words to my friends who say - "These ideas only appeal to a small segment of the total market." You are correct, but in order to access their favorite piece, the customer must buy the whole package. And it would be silly to limit product development to only one example of one of these basic concepts. There needs to be an independent producer model that encourages independent experimentation - with the promise of monetary reward - so that multiple parallel tracks can be developed at a commercial pace.

AOL has typically told independent producers that AOL will distribute their stuff - if the producer pays AOL! Sound strange? Indeed! And that model is now probably a little bit dead - because AOL is not the lead dog it once was. Their business model is going to have to float a little closer to Earth, and be more accommodating to the people who might be willing to help them build the creative content package that can make broadband necessary, less expensive, and more widely available.