CNN, Physical Retailers Have Lots in Common

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There was quite the hubbub Tuesday when Jeff Zucker, president of Time Warner's (TWX) CNN made these comments (excerpt courtesy our friends and lovers at MediaBistro's "TVNewser"):

(Zucker) wants more of "an attitude and a take": "We're all regurgitating the same information. I want people to say, "You know what? That was interesting. I hadn't thought of that," Zucker said. "The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts."

Couldn't agree more with that assessment.

Reporting the news is and will remain a losing proposition. If you're merely regurgitating it, you're really screwed.

For all intents and purposes, what Zucker wants at CNN is personality-driven media. The stuff Fox News and CNBC and TheStreet's Jim Cramer are made of. That doesn't mean CNN needs to be just like Fox News, Cramer or anybody else equally-as-entertaining and informative (great personalities tend to be distinct); it just needs to inject personality not only into its lineup, but its culture.

And herein lies the problem.

Radical change will grab the old people who sit around and watch CNN all day from their recliners and throw them headfirst into their china cabinets. They'll light up CNN's switchboards with complaints. Media critics will be all over Zucker for sacrificing CNN's journalistic integrity. More critics will follow with lines like "as if they had any anyway." And the pressure will be on. Because it will be difficult for a culture that's not personality-driven to handle the heat generated by personality-driven media.

I saw it happen a million times when I worked in radio. Back when the medium was still semi-relevant.

A program director knew he had to take out the oldies format or talk/news lineup that appealed to 65-year olds (radio, and I presume, TV people connote the 65+ demo with pending death). So he or she would replace oldies with alternative rock. Or blow out talk show hosts who had become market legends in favor of louder, more brash and opinionated personalities. And the backlash would be relentless.

The stations where management had backbone, vision and a clue weathered the storm. They realized this criticism came from very specific sectors of the audience. They knew they were essentially recycling from one flavor of audience to another. It's a process. And, as difficult as it can be to get through, the adverse reactions from a very vocal and persistent minority is evidence that you're finally implementing real and meaningful change.

That's what CNN will be up against if it makes the types of drastic moves Zucker, quite explicitly, says it needs to make.

Ultimately, the onus is on him.

Will he go all the way and truly transform what remains, by and large, a lineup that features one regurgitated newscast after another? Or will he, pardon my French, half-ass it because of the looks he's sure to receive from inside and outside CNN headquarters? They'll tell him he's crazy. That he's trashing the image of a once-respected institution. That, when they get there, James Earl Jones and Larry King will roll in their graves. These are age-old questions and observations that ultimately contain the answers to success or failure in these types of scenarios.

And they're not all that different from the challenges physical retail faces.

The call for wholesale change and a brand new, hyper-radical way of thinking at brick-and-mortar stores (I make the call in the above-linked article), shadows Zucker's situation at CNN.

Physical retailers such as Best Buy (BBY) and J. C. Penney (JCP) make cosmetic changes (lame store within a store "experiences) and go with rehashed tricks from the failed retail tool bag (deeper discounts, "better" customer service) because it's safe. And, often, these things produce short-term results. We have seen it with BBY. We might end up seeing it with JCP. But the sweet allure of short-term results -- made sweeter by Wall Street's mindless approval -- doesn't portend a long-term strategy.

Not in retail. Not in the media.

Like CNN, physical retail cannot be afraid to take its present "audience" and shock the living hell out of it. This means taking what we know as brick-and-mortar retail and getting as crazy with it as Jeff Bezos does with drones at Amazon.com (AMZN). Committing to a mindset that says This guy defines success in the modern era. And why is he -- and Amazon.com -- so wildly successful?

Because he believes in every part of everything he's doing. He knows it's right. He knows it's righteous. The critics don't faze him. Neither does the criticism because, after a while, it becomes faceless. It ends up smacking your office window like a tidal wave. However, if you commit to the strategy long enough to get wet (thanks, Elliott Smith), you have a fighting chance at being as successful as Jeff Bezos and game-changing, multiple-space altering Amazon.com.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

 

Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Pendola makes frequent appearances on national television networks such as CNN and CNBC as well as TheStreet TV. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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