Jumping the Shark

April 28th

So I was talking to a postal aficionado friend about the issues that the USPS is facing.  We were having one of those conversations that would have been intelligible to a about 50 people involving the timing of regulators, the implications for policy proposals, the effect on rates, the result for markets, the unintended consequences…then we would change an assumption and cycle through the variables again.   Scenario planning for wonks.

This particular colleague and I have been having these conversations for 10 years.   The problems of the posts are only getting worse.  Much worse.

I always listen to him carefully.  I had asked him the most baffling question of all about 5 years ago.  “Don’t the customers understand what they are going to do to the postal service, the drive train of their livelihood, if they keep going with these retirement payments?”  I had asked.

He said “well you saw it in the reaction to your talk”

[This was a then recent speech about putting the phrase “the regulator shall” into a law.  I was arguing that the customers should be careful about what they wished for.  If you start a regulator down the path of killing an agency, as the British and others have found, you eventually succeed.  And then what?]

He said.   “Maybe they don’t care,” to which I replied, “no one is that mad.”

“Maybe you are thinking about this wrong,” my friend suggested.  “Maybe they know what’s going to happen and they don’t want to be the last man holding the bag.  Maybe risking killing off the institution on which they depend is less of a problem than having it die slowly with enormous debts that they will have to pay off.”

I remember stopping in my tracks with one of those “of course…” thoughts.

So I always listen.

I was explaining that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee had asked the Postmaster General what he would do with the $75 billion dollars and he answered that if they got the money “they would be OK for a long time.”

I explained in defense of his answer that various Senators had asked him a lot of the same questions and it was late in the afternoon.   I knew he had a better answer and he was being more polite than I would have been able to be.

“Do you think that Snailmail has just jumped the shark? “ he asked and I knew that I was at one of those moments of recognition again, but not for the reason that he might have had in mind.

Jumping the shark refers to the exact moment when you know that something (your television show or anything else) has gone past the peak and its all downhill from here.

Fonzie

From Happy Days

Paramount Pictures

In a 1977 episode that began the fifth season, Henry Winkler (“Fonzie”) water-skis in Santa Monica and encounters a shark.  The critics and the fans found this moment to be such a lame effort to save the franchise that they have agreed for years that this was the moment when they knew it was all over.

There is an argument to be made that when an industry can no longer envision how it would spend a windfall, (even if it deserves the windfall) it may well have jumped the shark.

For the record, it’s useful to note that it wasn’t over for Happy Days by a longshot. The studio owned Happy Days and once it ended its prime time run it made the real money in syndication.

Congress and the FCC had sought to protect “local access” by allowing local stations to have prime television time (technically the time just before prime time under what were called the “Broadcast Rules.”)  Local affiliates of the Nntworks discovered that they could buy rights to show favorite television shows like Happy Days as “counter programming” to the network television news and make a fortune in advertising sales.  The studios may have preferred to have a show end once they had enough episodes of a popular franchise to make serious money in syndication.

The result of this regulatory scheme (the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule’s multibillion dollar syndication market) was no doubt not exactly the consequence that had been intended.  But it was in it’s own way a market solution to the question of what should local television affiliate do for the citizen/viewers?

Is the lesson that there is life after jumping the shark and perhaps it’s time to get on with finding out what it is?  We can see that the current business model is not likely to be sustainable.  The postal service is already going through rapid, even radical change.  But so far, all with an effort to preserve the way things have “always been.”  Whether they have always been the same is beside the point.

Perhaps its time to anticipate what kind of a national institution we want to see, what services we want it to provide for our democracy and how we will pay for them; especially now that we have seen the shark.

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