CBS This Morning hit a major milestone this past week reaching 1000 episodes. For a network that has struggled to pose a serious threat to its rivals, this was a quiet victory and validation that a newsier strategy is working. I’ve often noted that being in third place is a good thing. You have the freedom and luxury to experiment with new ideas. Most work. Others fail. The show and its talent are not subject to intense scrutiny. The pressure to deliver and maintain a lead on your competition is minimal because efforts are focused on producing the best show possible. Clearly being an underdog has its benefits.
In my view, being in third place and offering a distinctive product or serving as a niche news provider with brand equity is more important than racing to the top to be number one. In a mature and saturated market, how do you stand out? Some marketing professionals will tell you to imitate the market leader. Boom. Done. In the morning news wars, Good Morning America did just that. The news division under James Goldston amplified their sweet offerings and waited for the right moment to strike and overtake Today. When CBS was contemplating its umpteenth version of a morning show in 2011, should it have employed the same failing strategy it used for a decade? Absolutely not.
Other industry specialists such as television branding guru Martin Lambie-Nairn will tell you is…be different. But doing things differently requires great courage as he states in this presentation. Some might say CBS had no choice but to be different. This is the beauty of being in third place. Over three years later, what do we have? A show that is a ratings success and critically acclaimed for being unique in substance and style. Niche is good in my opinion unlike CNN US which is trying to reach everyone, the lowest common denominator of society, and coming out with no one. CBS This Morning may never be number one. And that’s OK. But it does have brand equity which is more important than having news anchors willing to dress up for a circus act over Halloween.
The same theory can be applied to other broadcasters such as BBC World News or Al Jazeera America. The BBC realizes that it will always be a niche player in what is considered the most competitive media market in the world. Its taken over a decade for it to establish itself in the US and it still has a ways to go. What they offer is a window on to the world that most broadcasters are not. The BBC News brand is instantly recognizable particularly with the younger generation. That used to the case for Al Jazeera when their English TV service was available online for free. During the Arab Spring, their online viewings skyrocketed. Part of the allure of Al Jazeera English in the US was it didn’t have wide distribution; it was a niche provider that had built great brand equity. Watching AJE was like being identified with a product that most people did not have access to so it made you different and resourceful.
Once it got overly ambitious to crack the US market, part of its arrangement during the acquisition of Current TV was to cease the AJE online offering. Not good. First of all, what was the rationale for spending $500M and more on an ancient business model? Take that and spend one-fourth which could have been used to start the best online venture money could buy with an entirely new brand. Knowing the name itself was controversial, they could have built a brand that was fresh and distinctive enough to compete in a crowded space. TV was not the way to go. Online was the future then and it continues to be. Just ask CBS News Live. Ironically, it celebrated a one-year anniversary and while it may not be perfect, it’s a slick operation that isn’t marred by the limitations of traditional broadcasting. Viewers who have sampled it like what they have seen and appear to be coming back for more…just like me. Being part of the CBS News family have given it tremendous brand equity. I have no qualms admitting that I have offered @Mosheh and @davidgrayrhodes suggestions to improve it. It’s called viewer feedback and I’m a viewer. As trivial as it may sound, one thing I’ve focused on is their music package. I like music and feel that a news theme should sound unique and contemporary. If I wanted to listen to a marching band, I’d visit my local high school. Thankfully, Bloomberg – in their latest on-air re-branding efforts – has gotten the drift. It’s time my friends over at CBSN get it too.