Television’s Royal Mess

Were you one of the 21 million people that watched Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan last week?  I was.  Without question it’s one of the most talked about television events in quite some time.  But as someone who’s worked in media for two decades, I found the experience frustrating.  For all the positives, it sadly reminded me of traditional television’s bad habits that are steadily killing the medium.

The positives have been chronicled extensively:  Oprah remains a supreme interviewer, cinematic level production values, star power, masterful pre-event marketing and promotion, and buzz worthy content that made headlines for days.  For those of us who grew up in an earlier era, it was a reminder of the unique power of traditional television to create a collective, cultural moment.

Yes, it harkened back to glory days gone by.  But for all the nostalgia, it did not feel to me like I was watching the fading star triumph one more time, like Tiger winning the Masters in 2019.  Rather it was like seeing the once great but over-the-hill Willie Mays stumbling around the bases in his final year as a Met.

I want to be clear here, I am not in any way comparing Oprah, the royals or anyone involved in the production of the event to an aging athlete who doesn’t know when to quit.  None of them have lost a step.  They more than delivered.

What felt so tired and dated was the format and lack of basic directional information for consumers to watch replays of the interview.  It is the continuation of the decades long bad habit of network executives to put business decisions above consumer experience.  This is the type of thinking that has allowed the streaming platforms to eat traditional television’s lunch and push it to the brink of extinction.

The excessive commercial load for the interview made the experience almost unwatchable for consumers and ineffective for advertisers.  Needless to say it’s been a tough year for advertising.  I can understand the temptation when presented with a sure fire hit to do what it takes to blow out the revenue.  By all means, jack up the unit cost when you have a hit.  That’s good business.  But to also expand the load to a point where the interruptions irritate the viewer and the volume of commercials make it hard for advertisers to stand out is putting short term greed before all else.

This is exactly the type of thinking that has created the current existential crisis for traditional television.  Somewhere along the way network executives stopped asking themselves what’s best for the consumer and instead focused on driving revenue and creating shareholder value.  Expanding commercial loads, licensing content to streaming platforms without consideration for their own brands and a failure to keep pace with consumers’ changing sensibilities and habits are all examples of putting business needs before customers.

The traditional networks, and just to be clear over the past 20 years I have been guilty of short term thinking too, are attempting to correct this mistake as they move quickly to build their own streaming platforms.  They know the strategy that drove so much of the business the past decade won’t work in this new world.  Failure to put consumer needs first is a sure-fire path to failure.

While its days are waning, the Harry and Meghan interview proved that for at least the foreseeable future traditional television’s unmatched reach still will be the first choice for those seeking to create a large scale cultural moment.  My hope is the next time Oprah comes to a network with another blockbuster network decision makers put the needs of the customer first.  It would be the best business decision they could make.

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