Don’t Let A Successful Product Become Your “Boss”

Written by Mike Shapiro | | May 17, 2017

You’ve found some products and systems that work. And chances are, they take up a lot of energy and resources. But just because a product or service is a winner doesn’t mean it ought to have a chilling effect on your continuing efforts to try new things.

It’s easy to see how some projects can attain a too-big status. TV programming provides a good example:

A recent NY Times article describes the networks’ latest efforts to catch lightning in a bottle to develop the next season’s hot TV shows. And it looks like studio execs are hoping their old go-to tactics — copycatting and leaning on the producer of one or more successful shows to “play it again” — will give them the next big thing.

You can understand why studio execs resort to moves like this in the hopes of grabbing viewers’ attention as shows come into — and then quickly out of — popularity: It costs lots of money to make a new show, whether or not it catches on, and then lots more money to keep it going if it’s a hit.

In a world of fickle consumption, audiences come and go, and that creates pressure when execs have to love a show so much they’re willing to bet the ranch just to get it made and keep it on the air.

So, they look for the “secret sauce.”

Maybe it’s the pedigree of the producers. Mick Jagger should know about music and the 60s and Martin Scorsese knows how to make a drama. So it should have made sense for HBO to invest $100 million in Vinyl, right? And much as pundits try to blame the show’s failure on a misreading of target audience demographics, the show flopped because people decided they just didn’t like it that much. Nobody can be counted on to deliver a hit every time.

Or, maybe it’s the drawing power of a star. People point to the case of  Two And A Half Men. Charlie Sheen was making $1.8 million per episode before he was fired. When Ashton Kutscher stepped in, he was paid less than half what they paid Sheen, but it was still huge. And yet, ratings fell badly.

It’s one thing to look for a winning formula, which is usually futile. But getting so attached to a single product that you’ll commit an inordinate amount of company resources to it can stifle your other efforts. You can see how success and high expenses get tied together, leading to an assumption that if you reduce the expenses, you’ll jinx the success.

Brian Williams was reportedly making $10 million per year as anchor of the NBC Nightly News, when he was forced to resign in 2015. NBC was scared. What would happen to the audience without him? Last I heard, the show was doing quite well with viewership — #1 in six out of the last seven quarters — with Lester Holt in the chair.

There’s always lots of reported handwringing at the Today show. According to a February 23, 2017 article in Vanity Fair, the show has lost 17% of its audience since 2008. They’re always firing this co-anchor or that one. So why is Matt Lauer paid $25 million per year?

“One former NBC executive explained that the reason Lauer is both untouched and always rewarded—too big to fail—is that he pretty much has to be: ‘If Matt Lauer (left) tomorrow, there is no heir apparent, and that is why Matt can drive the price of what they pay him.’”

Really? There’s been a Today show since the early 1950s and, apparent or not, there’s always been an heir. And somehow the show goes on. Nobody is indispensable. Who’s in charge there?

There’s no magic formula. In today’s world of short attention spans, you have to try lots of things. And even when you find one that works for awhile, you can’t afford to let it get so important that it monopolizes your time and resources and keeps you from trying other things. (BTW, don’t feel too bad for HBO. At the time of the Vinyl flop they had 100+ shows in the pipeline.)

Think about your business. Are any of your successful products and services getting too big for their britches? It’s ok to give a winner the care and feeding it needs, but don’t wait for customers to lose interest before you start looking for ways to make room for new ideas.