retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

When it comes to winning and losing, we want to win. Yet even the most successful enterprises have to grapple with the basic reality that at some point the game turns around, unless you are incredibly lucky, creative or good. Even if you are all three, at some point you are bound to lose.

In Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery, making a middle-aged return as James Bond, is asked by the villain of the film (a tepid remake of Thunderball), "Do you lose as gracefully as you win?" And Connery replies, "I don't know. I've never lost." But only James Bond could make that statement...

The business landscape is littered with stories of once dominant companies falling on hard times, but one recent story is interesting because it possesses so many of the qualities that frequently lead to losing. Plus, it happened so publicly.

For more than 16 years, NBC television understood winning…at least when it came to early morning. Now the drama taking place around the one dominant "Today" show provides a very different lesson in how to lose that very same edge.

If even you aren’t a follower of the titans of morning television, you probably have heard this story. "Today," hosted by Matt Lauer with, in succession, Katie Couric, Meredith Viera and Ann Curry, was the ratings champ in morning television every week from December 1995 until about one year ago, when ABC’s "Good Morning, America" ended the streak. (Obviously there are countless other morning shows, but none of them come close in viewership to "Today" and "GMA.")

NBC’s success seemed built on the strength of a mix of news and entertainment that managed to appeal to an audience that varied from business people to stay-at-home parents to people working out in gyms. As detailed by New York Times reporter Brian Stelter in a recent article and a book studying the morning television wars, the secret sauce behind "Today" and its longtime dominance was the congeniality of the cast. Stelter described it as a happy family who smoothed over transitions such as the change in female hosts.

That was until 2011 when Viera left the show and Curry took over. I’m not a viewer, but Stelter said it instantly became clear that Lauer and Curry didn’t click personally or professionally. Suddenly the ratings began to slip. With a stunning amount of palace intrigue Curry was targeted as the scapegoat, set up for replacement and left the show in a farewell of tears. The tears came on live television.

Just like that, the streak ended and "GMA" took over the lead. As Stelter said, the comity that provided "Today" its incredible strength suddenly looked phony and media reports are replete these days with the damage to the show, the network and to Lauer himself.

I heard an interview with Stelter where he described the two key business lessons he finds from the whole drama and they are worth considering.

• First, "Today" forgot how to lose. In Stelter’s words, the show was so dominant that it became resistant to change. Parts of the show, including even specific camera angles, were used morning after morning, making the show seem comfortable, yes, but also old and stale. And once the show lost its top slot there seemed to be a lack of in house talent who knew how to fight back.

• Second, "GMA" learned how to win. The second banana realized it couldn’t win by copying "Today," so instead the show looked for areas of difference. Once the audience gave "GMA" a try, Stelter said, they found it engaging and fun. So they stayed.

Those lessons are pretty straightforward for any business and I’d add a third: "Today" may have forgotten that the customers really own the brand. In this case, the family feeling of the cast was critical. NBC was looking at hard numbers for a decision, but the viewers saw something else and didn’t like it.

One last thought...

I wonder how long either of these shows actually remains a powerhouse. There was a time when my wife would flip on one of the shows in the morning, but her breakfast routine is different now. Now she turns on her iPad and checks into her social networks - usually Facebook - to see what’s happening in her world. Very quickly she can check on any news from friends and family.

In short, she’s tuned into "Good Morning, Janice." If there’s a big news event, the TV goes on. If not, it’s just the social network where there’s always some drama, intrigue and news…but it’s always involves the people she cares about most.

Winning is always getting harder and harder.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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