WSJ.com did not become a popular site because they designed the concept around the advertisers. It was because they delivered valued content to individuals who in turn are directly proportional in value to advertisers.
Some have asked, well, isn't the real customer here the advertiser? Though it is true that the advertiser is the customer in terms of the exchange of media goods and services for dollars, they are not the ones for whom content should be (is?) developed.
Yes, "soap operas" were born of the desire for Ivory and the like to reach potential consumers, but the content itself HAS to be CONSUMER-driven, not advertiser-driven. Certainly, in the modern media environment, consideration of which advertisers might be for a particular type of content and whether or not the content will remain consistent with an advertiser's taste must be made. But that determination is invariably based on what kind of audience the producer of that content thinks will be attracted to it and whether or not they will be attracted to it for a particular duration.
'Survivor' is not a success because the producers wanted to make an advertiser program. Yes, advertisers love it because there are large, attractive audiences, and the product placement opportunities found here are, for now, unique. But consumers (viewers, listeners, etc.) must find value in the content or there won't be any advertisers who find value in the audience, because there won't be an audience to find.
Everything about advertising MUST start with the consumer, not the advertiser.
Does this mean that the audiences being collected around online content, or the content itself, are without value, and that's why there is so much inventory available?
An inventory glut is not the result of sites not knowing how to manufacture audiences; it is just the opposite. The problem is whether or not that audience has value to the advertiser. Not to mention the slap-dash way the publishers in the online space package their audiences. If reps weren't pulling IOs out of their fax machines motivated by dreams of avarice, and sites tried to figure out how to demonstrate the value of their audiences during the time of irrational exuberance, advertisers would still be buying up inventory right and left today.
I would posit that for a while the proliferation of things like free ISP services and the continuing proliferation of free content didn't do much to bring on a "quality" audience, but I would hardly say that NetZero is the reason for less-than-desirable inventory. All kinds of "undesirables" watch TV, but P&G still wants them to buy Tide.
It was the inability of the medium to demonstrate its innate value that has left advertisers nonplussed. Now that we've had all this down time to actually think about what we're doing and how we're doing it, the advertisers are coming on board. I've got traditional CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies asking about online now in ways they never have before. As an industry, we are finally doing the right kinds of things.
I will encourage everyone once more to read, if they haven't done so already, Ogilvy on Advertising. That guy understood fundamentals that will never change unless we become an entirely new species. Then everyone should read the Clue Train Manifesto, which sort of helps to contextualize what constitutes value to consumers in the digital space. Then y'all should move on to Frankenstein, because the moral of that story is: just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.
When it is all said and done, the determinants for content, placement, technology, ad format, etc., is the audience and the practice of the democracy of the dollar held in the hand of the consumer and where he or she chooses to put it.