This op-ed piece appears in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 19, 2005.

NEW MEDIA: Businesses better get with the program
By Paul Harris

Apple’s introduction last week of a new iPod capable of playing video clips and TV shows should send shockwaves through every company (media and otherwise) that hasn’t grasped America’s new business paradigm: It’s no longer enough to give people what they want; they also have to be able to consume it on their own terms.

Apple’s iPod and other mp3 devices gave us that freedom with music in a way that the Walkman and portable CD players couldn’t. The new technology allowed us to acquire and store songs in large quantities and listen to them whenever we desired, wherever we desired and in whatever order we desired.

Apple’s new deal with Disney’s ABC television division allows someone who missed an episode of a TV show to download it the next day for $1.99 and watch it anytime, thus pushing the content/distribution envelope even further. I can already see an office full of people gathering around a video iPod to scrutinize a freeze-frame or sequence from “Lost” over and over again.

The old media — including radio stations like the one I work for and newspapers like this one — will have to embrace a more consumer-friendly distribution system, too. I say that not only as what we now call a content provider but also as a consumer. Like you, I want it all, and I want it on my timetable, not someone else’s.

Radio is starting to see the advantage of offering clips of popular shows as podcasts (as I do through my Web site, for listeners to download and enjoy anytime they want as streaming audio on their computers or iPods. Although some executives still regard this service as a waste of resources because it doesn’t generate any money, they actually should embrace it as a way to increase the impact of their entertainment products and as another way to satisfy their customers. Both will help create repeat business.

The digital video recorder — TiVo being the best-known brand — already has changed the way many of us watch TV. If we come home in the middle of a show that we’re recording with a DVR, for example, we don’t have to wait for the show to end before we can rewind and start watching it. With a VCR, we’d have to wait. If we have a DVR running during a live telecast, we can pause the action to answer the phone, put the kids to bed, go to the bathroom, fix a snack — and then pick up where we left off whenever we feel like it. VCRs can’t do that.

In other words, we’re not “watching TV,” a kind of generic activity; we’re watching specific shows, starting and stopping them on our schedules, not on the schedules of the broadcast and cable networks.

This all comes down to time and time management. Life today is busier than ever — this kid has to get to a soccer game, this one has a piano lesson, we spend more time working — so we have to jam our leisure time into the schedule when we can. When we can, not when someone else says we can.

That’s the reality Apple’s targeting with its new video-ready iPod, and it’s a reality that’s particularly important to members of the under-40 generation who have grown up multi-tasking the elements of their lives; always on the go, always wanting more, never willing to wait.

If your company serves consumers — whether one-to-one or en masse — you better grasp the importance of giving people what they want in a way that they can use when and where they want to. If you don’t, you’re going to be left behind.

Copyright 2005, Paul Harris.