I know a lot of people who love the TV show Cops. If you aren’t familiar with it, the program debuted on FOX in 1989 (no, that is not a typo – it has been on the air for 29 seasons and roughly 1,000 episodes). Today, it airs on Spike.
Cops is a reality program where a camera crew follows police officers around as they do their job. Initially, I remember the show’s focus being on the excitement and danger of upholding the law under challenging circumstances. Somewhere along the line, though, the producers of Cops realized that what American viewers really liked seeing was dumb people doing dumb things. After a few hundred episodes, it began to look less like reality TV and more like an attempt at satirical slapstick written by Mrs. McGillicuddy’s fourth grade English class. It became hard not to feel bad for the poor cops who had to question an endless parade of drooling criminals in white undershirts who always seem to be both chemically impaired and aggressively conversational.
Remember a cable network called G4? It was a network devoted to technology. In particular, it showed a lot of programs about video games and computers. It was basically “Nerd TV,” focusing on a very specific, very well defined target audience. However, in a struggle to find 24-hours of geek-focused content, the powers that be at G4 chose to shovel reruns of Cops into the network schedule’s dead spots. Why? Because it was a good fit with their target audience? Nope. Because Cops is a cheap show to make and even cheaper in reruns. Does anybody pay those reprobates on the show who try desperately to squeeze their digitally obscured heads out of the back window of police cruisers in order to proclaim their slurred innocence to their horrified neighbors? Negative. It was a low-risk move on G4’s part.
Then something weird happened: reruns of Cops started to get viewers on G4. In fact, the network started to move it into prime spots on the schedule. In just a few months, you could see the network shift away from Nerd TV towards Junk TV. It even picked up a show called Cheaters, which you might remember as a Cops knock-off made up almost entirely of young men and women screaming at each other in exchanges so full of bleeped out words that they sounded roughly like a chorus of delivery trucks using their back-up warning alerts to do karaoke on REM’s “It’s the End of The World.” In other words, G4 ditched their core target audience, threw out their initial business model and went all-in on trying to attract everybody – anybody – they could.
In just a couple of years, they were off the air.
What does this have to do with Snapchat (and bless your heart if you’re still reading this and wondering “What the heck was that title all about?)? The hugely popular (but clearly stagnating) social media platform recently announced that it will premier a somewhat edited version of the BBC’s much anticipated new nature program, Planet Earth II. You know, the show with the fantastic cinematography of real animals doing real things that look exactly like all the movies we watch with computer-generated animated animals doing real things? That show. It’s huge in Great Britain (where they love their nature shows), and it will likely be huge when it comes to BBC America.
But first, it’s going to be on Snapchat. Let that sink for a minute. Snapchat. The platform that teens use to exchange inappropriate images and adults use to take graphically altered selfies that look like poor Helena Bonham Carter when she used to date Tim Burton. THAT Snapchat is going to debut the BBC’s snooty nature show in the United States.
Rather than figuring out how to monetize their current success (ala Facebook), they look to be going for the “let’s try to appeal to anybody we can!” strategy (a la G4 and Cops). Why can’t anybody choose a business model, target audience and brand strategy and stick with it? Apple didn’t get to be the world’s most successful company by making mission-style burritos. They stuck with their core business and their core audience and let the world come to them.
I will be watching the goings-on at Snapchat with rapt attention. One way or the other, we will all probably learn a thing or two about branding and how we should treat our core audience.