Networks. In my youth, the term was most familiar to me as the word for large, national television stations. NBC was at the bottom of a small heap in the late 1970s. If I recall correctly, Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show supported most of the network in general. Now remember, there were only three networks and some local stations, yet NBC was unable to do well. Then NBC tried a show that I believe many thought would not work or have little success, The Cosby Show. Who knew? That show took off and NBC parlayed The Cosby Show into 20 years of dominance. Family Ties was OK but nothing brilliant. Nonetheless, with Cosby as the anchor, NBC tested and launched series such as Cheers, Friends, and ER with Wings and other decent fillers in between. In a sense NBC seemed to have cross-subsidized its programming on Thursday and even other nights (by launching and then moving series). In addition, that lead allowed NBC to promote all its other programming. Then came CBS which was in the doldrums and it tried a little thing called Survivor. Boom! CBS took off. Many OK, and some not so good shows have done well on CBS. FOX arguably uses American Idol to achieve similar results. NBC struggles so much that some rather good shows are lost and like the proverbial tree they fall but no one hears them.
The analogy is far from perfect (for one I am not certain that T.V. shows require large numbers to be useful then again they seem to do well in part because one likes to be able to talk about shows around the so-called water cooler), but I wonder if Yahoo!, AOL, Google, MSN, Facebook, and Twitter are in some ways similar to the T.V. networks. One killer app and the site grabs a ton of people who stick and may use other products from the network. Users can click away and can use the services in a simultaneous way in that one can work with one service at time or have multiple services running but not miss programming as was the case before the VCR. There are many open questions in this arena. For one, how easily can one switch from one service to another? In addition, are there similar problems regarding limited access (i.e., T.V. and cable can carry only so many channels but the Internet has greater capacity (though depending on the status of the network not as unlimited as some might argue)? A key issue in my mind is the problem of knowing that a good service or program exists. The Internet appears better than T.V. at letting users quickly decide what they like, and the information seems to spread rather well. Still, I am sure there are great services that I am missing (a recent one that someone mentioned to me was Dropbox). One often doesn’t know what is good until those pesky advertisers and marketers push information. My recent research has been looking into the way trademarks as brands have functioned on several levels, but one thing that jumps out is that brands are two-way information devices. Advertising is a major piece of that puzzle in one direction; the Internet and commentary is a major piece of the puzzle in the other direction (trademark law handles this idea poorly). Ironically, just as T.V. and print cry out because ads are being skipped, the Internet steps in and seems to deliver better returns on ads. The new difference is that in some cases those who pay for and create the content that was subsidized by ads are not seeing that money. In other words, as Paul Duguid has shown in his work and I have found in my research, early brands can be understood as having a big role in supply chains; we may need to think of modern networks in much the same way. There are many details and differences to address in the Internet arena, but I think these ideas will be part of how we sort out some of the online competition issues in play today.