The Danger of Incrementalism

The title of this post is a little cryptic, so allow me to explain. Big companies have repressive cultural dynamics and decision making cycle that result in important strategic initiatives taking a really long period of time to emerge and when they do the compromises that are made in order to get consensus from the range of power centers that have to submit their consent means that the thing they intended to deliver looks really different when it emerges.

Let’s take NBC Direct, the recently released video download service from NBC. The consensus appears to be that the service is constrained by technology requirements, limited in functionality, and imposes use rights that are so constrained as to make the service of little value to users.

Each one of these decisions likely resulted from different NBC groups have a myopic and conflicting view of what NBC Direct was supposed to do. NBC Direct is not a video download service, it’s an entertainment channel and while NBC would not permit their network broadcast to run on specific brands of televisions or select cable systems, inoperable after a predetermined number of days, and choked full of so many ads that the amount of ad time eclipses the actual content… but amazingly that is just what they did with NBC Direct.

Some of the decisions about the technology, specifically the requirement for IE and WMA are easy to understand given the networks long affiliation with Microsoft. Having said that, these decisions are still wrong and hurt the service because, well most obviously it takes 7% of the market off the table, Mac users. Similarly the decision to not allow download to iPod further constricts the addressable market for NBC.

Given that the service relies on Microsoft’s DRM technology so the vague promises that Firefox and Mac support are coming are thin.

Other decisions, such as the downloads expiring 7 days after they are posted are really impossible to understand. To be clear, the downloads don’t expire 7 days after downloading, they expire 7 days after NBC posts them. What this means is that if you download a video on the 1st day of availability you will have 6 days and change to enjoy it, but if you download the video on the 6th day it will expire in less than 24 hours. I can only imagine this decision was driven by some network scheduling executive who insisted that viewers only have access to the episode of any show made available for the week that it is current.

Lastly, this service has dumps so many advertisements on the downloads that it’s comical. This again reflects an incremental decision driven not by the quest to capture as much reach and attention as they could, but to accommodate advertising execs and the commitments they surely made on the backend to satisfy advertisers who are increasingly moving away from TV to online.

NBC Direct is a lame service that suffers from technology and usage restrictions, all of which were avoidable and predicted by historical failures at competing services. Apparently, nobody at NBC kept asking “what objective do we want to accomplish here” before allowing the service to become henpecked by a thousand competing requirements. Like Chris at NewTeeVee says, I’d recommend that you just don’t bother with NBC Direct.

UPDATE: I realized that the title of this post is still a little too cryptic. What I am attempting to say is that any one of the decisions that NBC made with Direct could have been enhanced if they maintained a clear view as to what their purpose was with the service, but even in the absence of that sense of purpose none of the individual tactical decisions referenced about would sink Direct, it is the totality of missteps that will make this fail.