Column: Gestalt - Bell the Cat or Ride the Horse

There is a story about a group of mice that met one day to complain about the aggressive house cat that constantly ambushed them. They brainstormed many ideas to fix the situation when, one mouse declared: "We can put a bell around his neck, so we'll always have fair warning when he's coming!" There was much rejoicing at the brilliance of this plan - all agreed it was the perfect and obvious solution - until one mouse meekly asked: "But which one of us is going to put the bell on him?"

A clear solution to an obvious situation that no one wants to implement, this is a parable that should resonate for anyone in the media world wrestling with the exciting new technologies and behaviors of our times. The cat of new media is an unsettling presence.

For years, our media brethren have tried everything from Ignoring the cat ("this is not the first time someone said new technology will kill our business") to trying to make the cat play by our rules ("people will buy more of our newspapers or watch more of our programming if our Web sites drive them to do it") to trying to kill the cat ("let's take innovators to court"). The cat of new media, however, has a mind of its own.

This cat is comprised of countless individuals taking advantage of the availability, facility, size, low cost, and improvements in hardware and storage across any device. They are embracing digital music and video (legal or otherwise), and racing to the Internet as a prime resource for shopping, travel, dating, news, and communication. They are beginning to choose video programming on their own terms.

Many media executives tell me it's easy to describe the cat, but much harder to bell it when so much existing business - still profitable and even growing business - is at stake. Coming from the traditional media world, I have always empathized with the "cannibalization" argument. But over the years, I have been convinced it is more of a crutch because, at the end of the day, new media is less a cat to be feared than a horse to be ridden.

In 1981, Jack Valenti told Congress that the VCR would destroy the movie business outright. What happened instead was that new technologies increased people's hunger for quality entertainment. New business models and a little risk-taking brought higher returns. Change doesn't need to be a zero-sum game if media businesses rethink not only their delivery models, but also their business models.

Of course new media brings risks, but individuals value quality content, experience, interaction, and communication.

There is a reason that Apple's iPod and iTunes have taken off and CD sales are plummeting. There is a reason why digital video recorder penetration is increasing and video-on-demand downloads are in the millions, while network ratings decline. There is a reason why time on the Internet is surpassing time on television. Individuals value what media companies create, but less how they present it, distribute it, or make it accessible. If media companies stick to one of the greatest business maxims, if not clichés - give the customer what they want - they will shift to the right side of history.

The technologies available today are not an animal to be feared.

Christopher Schroeder is CEO and president of ChoiceMedia, and formerly the CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. (schroeder@choicemedia.com)

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