In Search Of A White Space?

Imagine, for a second, you’re Chris Licht.  You’ve just taken over a network named CNN, which has been consistently trailing its chief competition in linear ratings, aborted a digital platform in less than a month and was plagued by scandals that cost it its 9 PM anchor and your predescessor just before you were put in charge.

I’ve never worked with Licht, but I have worked with other executives who have been tasked with similar challenges to turn around ships taking on water, if not outright sinking.  At a high level, we’d conduct studies that attempted to identify a “white space”.  As no less than the Harvard Business Review attempted to explain what that is:

...white space basically means “a place where a company might have room to maneuver in a crowded playing field.”

As a metaphor, white space is at once ubiquitous and frustratingly ambiguous. There may be as many definitions circulating as there are business thinkers. Some people define it as a place where there’s no competition. Others as an entirely new market. Still others use it, as Tim Armstrong has, to refer to gaps in existing markets or product lines.

For all its ambiguity, though, white space is undoubtedly a metaphor about opportunity; different thinkers define it differently because they take varying approaches to capturing opportunity. In that spirit, let me offer up another way to look at white space — a very specific meaning I think would be particularly useful to Tim Armstrong and to any other top executive engaged in strategy formulation.

Rather than think of white space as external — as some indistinct but desirable land outside your company’s walls — I suggest that it’s more productive to view it as an internal signpost — as a way to map your company’s ability to address new opportunities or threats. So by white space, I mean “market opportunities your company may wish — or need — to pursue that it cannot address unless it develops a new business model.”

It was necessary for Licht and his management to look at CNN in this context, one of a business entity and not a journalistic haven.  The business entity that Licht inherited was NOT successful.  And in many time slots, and certainly in the court of public opinion, they were losing not to the right-leaning FOX News but also to the left-leaning MSNBC.

So if you’re Licht, finding a white space is a challenge, particularly when you place FOX News in your crosshairs.  If your personal journalistic instinct is to skew left of that target, well, there’s already substantial evidence that that approach hasn’t worked.  MSNBC, with the full support of Comcast and its streaming siblings NBC News NOW and MSNBC on Peacock owns that space, and recently cancelled shows hosted by more extreme POC voices like Zerlina Williams and Ayman Mohyeldin.

Now look to the right.  FOX’s competition currently includes the likes of Newsmax and OAN, both of which have embraced even stronger POVs supporting the MAGA movement, the beliefs of the former President and his staunchest supporters and providing a platform for some truly inflammatory commentators.  But both of those entities are handicapped by distribution weaknesses–OAN has become little more than a streaming-only entity in the wake of being dropped by DIRECTV–and are not necessarily ratings juggernauts relative to their footprints.  It appears that they siphon off the more extreme end of FOX”s audience, and in raw numbers, they’re not huge.

It stands to reason that a significant white space exists for CNN to improve by courting FOX News viewers who indeed are pissed off when President Biden stands before a marine color guard and forcefully denounces MAGAs as the opponents for the battle for America’s soul–in prime time, no less.  And yes, many of them did vote for Keri Lake and some even voted for Sarah Palin.  And plenty will still vote for Donald Trump were he to actually decide to run for president again.

You may not agree with their views.  But they are your potential view-ERS.  And they represent eyeballs and dollars that you, Chris Licht, have been ordered to chase.  The last thing you need at this point are employees who call out those viewpoints as uninformed, radical or a threat to democracy.  Just like Joe Biden did the other night.

So John Harwood, journalist extraordinaire, don’t let the door hit you on the way out,  Brian Stelter, sorry to say, what you think of media isn’t relevant to the white space potential.  I suspect the very use of the term “white space'” might provoke snarks and criticism that it can argued would be justified, given the demographic profile of the people that comprise it.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction to Harwood’s abrupt departure yesterday, not to mention the residual remorse for the cancellation of Stelter’s RELIABLE SOURCES last month, has been emotional and impassioned from more liberal commentators, including many who once were talking heads for CNN.   But sorry to say, those voices apparently didn’t watch a lot of the network’s shows, or at least weren’t being counted in the ratings.

Voices like Kevin McCarthy’s and yes, even Donald Trump’s, are equally impassioned.  An awful lot of people, for better or worse, agree with them.  Moral steadfastness is not necessarily a recipe for business success.  If you’re Chris Licht, you have little choice but to rid your underperforming network of voices who do all they can to mute them, and sound even more emotional than Biden did in doing so,

Besides, remember who Licht answers to.  The same guy who has cancelled Batgirl, Sesame Street and the contracts of hundreds of executives this summer alone.  And holds your employment fate in his holster.

Let’s face it–does he look like a liberal?

Until next time…

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