Tom Freston, Mark Rosenthal, Betsy Frank, Larry Divney, Gail Berman, Michael Wolf. That's a lot of talent ushered out the door since Viacom reorganized itself, spinning off old school CBS and positioning a streamlined "V" as vibrant, vaunted and vital to the future of the media marketplace. But if it keeps going at this rate, it will merely be vapid.
Undoubtedly, there were good reasons for some of these departures, but from the outside looking in, it sure looks like a lot of finger-pointing and fall-taking for a failed vision. Surely it cannot be as simple as the frustrations of crotchety Sumner Redstone over the fact that MySpace is Rupert'sSpace and not HisSpace. That'd be just plain spacey. Yeah, News Corp. has actually found ways of monetizing its half-billion-dollar bet on MySpace.com, but not necessarily in the ways one would have expected. The fact is that the biggest boon Murdoch has gotten out of MySpace was to his reputation and the perception that News Corp. has been quicker than most big media conglomerates to embrace a digital vision.
The truth is, Walt Disney Co.'s Bob Iger has done far more, by shelling out far less. And he's done it on the bones of what big media conglomerates are supposed to regard as their best media assets: great content, and superior distribution, promotion and marketing. And we're not simply talking about a resurgent ABC, the omniversal juggernaut that is ESPN, Disney's acquisition of Pixar, or its landmark deal with iTunes. We're talking about all of that. What Disney has been doing is what all Big Media should be doing: leveraging new media platforms to extend core content brands, not supplant them. Okay, so Disney's not alone. NBC, Clear Channel, PBS, CBS, and yes, even MTV, get it and are doing it. But it doesn't seem to be enough to appease the egos of some media titans to do what comes most naturally for them: open their gaping craws and devour. Stick with that strategy and you might end up starving yourself - and your shareholders - trying to swallow the next big fish.
The digital media marketplace is simply too dynamic for the traditional M&A game. Bet big and you might get lucky. Murdoch surely was lucky with MySpace, but it could've just as easily gone another way. And there's nothing to ensure that MySpace will continue to occupy the top space. As WPP chief Martin Sorrell wisely observed recently, the next big digital media game-changer undoubtedly already is being cooked up in a garage somewhere in China. However it ultimately changes the game, we're pretty sure it will still need great media content.
In the meantime, we recommend that companies like Viacom focus on making their most valuable brands even more valuable to consumers. If they do, they will survive 2.0, 3.0 and any number of versions that come down the road.
Lastly, how about putting some music back on MTV? As we write this column, our earbuds are tuned to one of our favorite recordings of "MTV Unplugged," and we're listening to Kurt Cobain wail remorsefully in what appears to be a personal message to Sumner Redstone:
Who knows, not me,
I never lost control,
You're face, to face,
With the man who sold the world.