We hear a lot in modern media discussions about “thinking outside the box.” The box is presumed to be old-fashioned — filled with people foolishly shackled by tradition. One must break free of its confines to unleash waves of brilliant ideas, as well as dissipate that musty convalescent-home aroma.
Nevertheless, the reaction to outside-the-box hires is usually mixed. An unorthodox choice generates excitement — perhaps because the entertainment industry has a way of recycling familiar faces, to the point of resembling musical chairs — but also a good measure of skepticism.
With the world changing so rapidly, shaking up established patterns at least fosters a forward-looking appearance. But do out-of-the-box hires really produce improved results? That answer would seem to be mixed at best.
ABC surprised the news community by naming Ben Sherwood as ABC News’ president — as the division did to a lesser degree by choosing globetrotting Christiane Amanpour to host its Sunday discussion show “This Week,” producing anonymous grumbles from its Washington-bureau staff.
Despite experience as an exec producer of “Good Morning America,” Sherwood left several years ago, and ABC’s press release touted his more recent accomplishments as a novelist and “digital media entrepreneur.” As for priorities, he stated in one interview, “We have to find a way to differentiate ourselves, innovate and find a new way of connecting to our audience.”
Sounds outside-the-box-y, doesn’t it?
Out-of-the-box thinkers can bring fresh perspective to problems. Yet they can also prove deficient in the necessary fundamentals — in football terms, throwing the equivalent of Hail Mary passes when they ought to be devoting some of their time to basic blocking and tackling.
NBC reached beyond the roster of usual suspects when the network selected another Ben, Silverman, to oversee its entertainment division. (The relationship between Sherwood and Silverman’s initials and their spatial relationship to the box is coincidental, though the jargon associated with escaping the box does frequently have a BS ring to it.)
To be fair, Silverman did achieve several things during his two-year tenure, particularly in broadening the network’s use of product integration — no small matter as DVR penetration nears 40%.
When it came to developing hits, however, his stint did little to halt NBC’s descent. And Silverman’s entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t, by most accounts, an especially good fit with the company’s corporate culture.
By contrast, the team announced by Comcast to lead NBC once its acquisition closes is about as inside-the-box as you can get, consisting entirely of seasoned TV execs. In essence, Steve Burke — who will become NBC Universal’s CEO — is banking on people with proven track records to adapt to current realities as needed.
Admittedly, media organisms can produce a kind of antibody that attacks perceived intruders as a defense mechanism. This explains why former TV execs Brandon Tartikoff and Gail Berman, for example, were treated like rank novices when they made the leap, 14 years apart, to the movie division at Paramount, as if there’s something magical about movie scripts vs. TV ones.
Such resistance is especially pronounced within the news community, as journalists assume a defensive crouch whenever outsiders enter the picture. In theory, newspapers feared change nearly to the point of extinction.
Then again, that’s often the excuse newcomers hide behind — see Sam Zell and the merry band of radio numbskulls he enlisted to oversee Tribune Co. — to dismiss legitimate objections to stupid, ill-informed schemes.
Clearly, one needn’t be a twentysomething Silicon Valley hotshot to be risk-taking and innovative. News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, for example, has exhibited a gambler’s nerve and willingness to blow the lid off the box on multiple occasions through the years.
The main drawback related to thinking outside the box, finally, is the faulty assumption that experience and knowledge can actually represent a sort of handicap. Perhaps that’s why some of those enlisted to wow the world with their outsider’s perspective quickly feel the box closing in on them — becoming a prison or, professionally speaking, a coffin.