All Companies Can Learn From 'The Newsroom'
Having gotten hooked on “The Newsroom” early in its first season, I approached the third and last season of this sometimes controversial HBO series with considerable anxiety. I worried I would enjoy the new episodes so much that I would find it hard to bid it goodbye.
While my anxiety was justified, all is not lost. In addition to being good entertainment and provoking important debates, this final season is giving us insights into innovation-driven corporate tensions in the real world, on a scale far beyond the media business. These frictions will have consequences that will spread rapidly in the months and years to come, in sectors that range from banking to retail and urban transportation.
These changes are driven by attempts to respond to the large-scale empowerment of the individual -- a phenomenon created by a combination of mobility, the Web and a never-ending string of innovative applications. This historical democratization is changing consumer behavior while fueling expectations of more holistic “anytime, anywhere” engagements. And it places enormous pressure on companies (and regulators) to adapt in a world that, more than ever before, is prone to “winner take all” tendencies.
In dreading the end of "The Newsroom," I worried the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, would opt for a sudden terminating event that would frustrate the natural evolution of its many individual story lines. This would be a shame for a show that, in my non-expert opinion as an irregular TV watcher, has skillfully combined reporting of big real-world news (from the Boston Marathon attacks to the rise of the Tea Party to the Snowden affair) with the tensions that arise between commercial considerations, on one hand, and journalistic purity and balance on the other.
With the finale coming on Sunday (and you may want to skip the next few paragraphs if you haven't kept up with this season), the abrupt terminating event occurred at the end of last week’s episode. Rather than involving some new transformational approach, it relied on the classic device of the death of a popular character. This death has taken place at an uncertain and tumultuous time for the newsroom, setting it up neatly for the exit of the main players.
All this may already be leading some viewers to shout "copout,” blaming Sorkin for a rather lazy and disappointing finish to an otherwise commendable effort. “Not so fast,” I would respond.
I do so with no knowledge of what the finale will bring, other than the short yet tantalizing preview that ran at the end of the penultimate show. Instead, I encourage viewers to appreciate how, in addition to providing great entertainment, Sorkin has helped us witness (and think about) a corporate transformational change as big and durable as that triggered by the personal-computer revolution.
The death on the show follows a last-minute effort to avert an inside change of ownership and control that would have broken up the company. To this end, the management went for a white knight in the form of a rich, young and brash entrepreneur.
What they failed to realize is that this entrepreneur’s desire to bring the news operation into the 21st century and also make money extended well beyond disrupting the modes of news dissemination, and included a better accommodation of a social-media-crazed world. He was also insisting on disrupting content, processes and procedures.
But management isn't the only one to have misread the situation. On his side, the entrepreneur severely underestimated the internal resistance he would face in carrying out change. That resistance leads to a dramatic on-air event and serves as the catalyst for the big institutional blowup that ends in the character's fatal heart attack.
As I noted earlier, the series highlights corporate tensions experienced in a growing number of segments in today’s fluid global economy. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in sectors where large, traditional platforms -- those with hard-to-disrupt, broad-based distribution channels -- are challenged to adapt to different forms of content provision and access that involve lower barriers to entry.
Again, the media business is the poster child of this phenomenon, with many established platforms still struggling to break the code for this new world. But it is only one of many. As this week’s IPO for LendingClub demonstrates, the democratization of finance -- particularly the gradual transformation of consumer finance -- is starting to gain momentum and in a way that will challenge traditional financial institutions.
So, thank you, Aaron Sorkin, for a wonderful series whose value-added goes well beyond TV entertainment. I just wish you and your colleagues had opted for a few more seasons.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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