As internal politics sap the energy of major corporations, consumers rebel against the growing sameness of what emerges from their assembly lines.The giant media companies continue to generate excitement these days, but that excitement is all about internal politics, not about earnings. It’s about their convulsions, not their creations. Investors look on with bewilderment as the body count keeps rising: Levin, Case, Mottola, Messier, Middelhoff, et al. Key division chiefs like Lieberfarb and Isaacson are suddenly history. But it’s not as if the product gets livelier as the executive toll rises. If anything, it’s the other way around. One of my high school teachers liked to point out that most people go through life without having a single original thought. Well, I’m beginning to wonder if that rule doesn’t apply to big corporations as well. No matter where you turn, corporate sameness is pervasive. Malls have the same stores, which sell the same brands. Radio stations play the same music — except for talk radio, which carries the same right-wing ideologues. TV programmers are eager to “repurpose” more shows, which means we’ll be able to catch the same episodes on different networks. So much for the brilliant diversity of the 500-station universe! Sameness is the key reason so many corporations are suffering sales declines, but we’re always given other explanations. The music business is a semi-oligopoly whose sales dropped 10% last year, all due to piracy, we’re told. But while the product of the global congloms may seem stale, local repertoire has climbed to nearly 68% of the total market. In France alone, all but one of the top 10 performers are homegrown, which reinforces the impression that the locals are offering more enticing fare than the multinationals. Chain stores trace their poor returns to the economic downtown, but surveys suggest shoppers are bored. “Seventy-four percent of all consumers say all stores look alike within their category,” reports America’s Research Group, which tracks consumer preferences. One of the few chains that reported improved results over the holidays was Neiman Marcus, since its stores aren’t identical to every other store. Chains like the Limited or Express got zapped because of their identity crisis, and could anyone really tell whether they’re in a Kmart or a Target were it not for the fact that, if it’s a Kmart, it’s closing? I used to like wandering through bookstores, until all the bookstores started looking alike. With independents on the wane, bookstores increasingly resemble Wal-Marts, except that there are stacks of books hidden among the DVDs and CDs. There’s no mystery as to why corporate stewardship is synonymous with corporate blandness. Big companies are risk-averse, especially in tough economic times. They like to play it safe, which is fine except for one factor: Innovation spurs growth, and innovation demands risk. Whoops! There are growing signs that people are impatient with sameness. An intriguing alliance of showbiz leaders and ad agencies is emerging to fight the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to ease limits on the number of TV or radio stations or newspapers that can be owned by a single company. They’re arguing that it will become increasingly more expensive to advertise on shows that are becoming more and more alike. While the media congloms favor deregulation, the reality is that fewer people are either watching television or buying newspapers. And the remaining audience prefers to pirate content rather than purchase it. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, new talent inevitably will rise to the top of the troubled media behemoths, “but it may turn out these companies have grown too large and complicated for anyone to handle.” And their product may be too boring for anyone to consume.
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