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Fifth Place Isn't Always the Worst Place to Be

Having Less to Lose Means You Have More to Gain

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There's never been a better time to be an also-ran.

That's the thought that occurred as I read this story about the CW network's new "cwickies" ad format. It describes various innovations at the CW -- innovations of the kind broadcast's Big Four have resisted. What the piece also implies, but doesn't say directly, is that CW can do things its much-larger rivals can't because it has less to lose; it draws fewer viewers, and has fewer advertisers. But less to lose also means more to gain.

It's always been true that smaller companies, at least in theory, move more quickly and change direction more easily than the battleships with which they compete. But conditions for second- and third-tier players to gain market share have perhaps never been as favorable as they are now.

Quick: How many gigantic media companies can you name that are frozen in place or spinning in circles as they try to reconcile the need to innovate with the desire to protect their existing revenue base? This is less about big battleships turning slowly and more about their commanders being afraid to go in the wrong direction or risk damaging their very expensive boats.

Sorry, I'll stop torturing metaphors and return to the point: The fear and hesitation of larger, legacy-bound companies is a real and meaningful opportunity for smaller players. As with CW, they can, and should, ignore the ways things have always been done and try the new and unexpected. This morning, I saw a write-up on a watch that presents the hours and minutes in a completely unique way, displaying them along a crescent-shaped sliver along the bottom of the face. It surprised me and served as a reminder that there's always a different way to look at a familiar object. I didn't check the market position of the watchmaker, but would wager it's not one of the top three in volume sales.

Market leaders have the best view, and it's usually their lead to lose. But if you're the fourth book in a three-book field, or the fifth network in an industry with a Big Four, it has the potential -- if you have the balls -- to be a plum position.
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