Column: Gestalt -- One Eye on the Future

My young wife is the last of what appears to be a dying breed: She not only feels loyalty towards the broadcast networks, she associates specific programming with them. Some of this is likely a counter-response to my incessant channel-flipping. Some of it is probably that she's not yet attuned to the TiVo revolution. Some of this, however, is that she associates a certain level of quality with these brands' programming.

But her type is supposed to be nearly extinct. Everyone knows that in the new world of choice -- and we're only in the early days of the individual taking control of her or his media and communication habits -- it is content that matters, not the distributor. I can't even tell you which network has the hottest shows. Can any God-fearing, self-respecting, personal-video-recorder-addicted, new media-focused consumer say otherwise?

Against many odds, one network is marrying old and new, leveraging its established brand with the new behaviors of our new world -- and that is CBS. It is taking steps, as Verne Gay of Newsday wrote, that "just might be TV's salvation as the medium forges into its swirling second half-century."

I say against many odds, because CBS, like all traditional television and print media businesses, risks either cannibalizing its existing business model or at least knocking it on its ear. Consider what Les Moonves and his team have wrought in 2005.

>> Exhibit One: CBS launched its 24-hour news service to compete with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, but solely online. "If CNN were to start today, that is what they would do," says Larry Kramer, president, CBS Digital Media. "In a broadband world, why launch with the expense of a new cable station when you can go straight to the user and offer them a truly interactive experience?" Why, indeed. There's a reason why this project was launched under the code name "cable bypass."

>> Exhibit Two: CBS now offers its top programming (including "CSI," "Survivor," and "The Amazing Race") on-demand on digital cable for Comcast customers. For 99 cents an episode, consumers can watch their favorite shows when and how they want to, including on their iPod. With PVR penetration growing, though still in a tiny fraction of households, this allows viewers in every house with a cable box to watch what they want when and how they want it.

>> Exhibit Three: CBS recently announced the acquisition of College Sports Television (CSTV), Brian Bedol and Steve Greenberg's brilliant venture, which offers more than 6,000 college sports events every year -- not only on its network, but through live audio and video feeds online.

>> Exhibit Four: CBS recently put its top comedies "Two and a Half Men" and "How I Met Your Mother" on Yahoo! for free distribution online. Once again, a great combination: Leverage a strong traditional brand, associate it with a strong interactive brand, and let people have what they want, when and how they want it.

Fantastic, all of it. But take these steps to their logical conclusion and assess the risk. If we live in a world of "cable bypass," in which viewers choose only the programs they want when they want them, what does this mean for the relationships between networks and cable in the long run? What does this mean for local network affiliates who rely on national programming to attract their audiences? And by the way, where will advertising play into all this?

No one knows the answers to these questions, but the point CBS gets is that in the changing media landscape it's not a question of if we will live in a world of choice but when (and when is now). These initiatives put business as usual at risk. But the marketplace has already done that. Business as usual is the greatest risk of all.

In The Godfather: Part III, Michael Corleone lamented about his quest to go legitimate: "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in." The greatest risk CBS faces is the pull of business as usual -- a strong, substantive, lucrative force, tried and true for decades -- sucking it back into a world that is going away. Withstanding these forces, CBS has a shot at getting my kids, not just my wife, to know who it is and to interact with its product.

Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of The Health Central Network, a ChoiceMedia company. (,

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