There is something on which our whole industry depends, but which no-one ever really talks about. I'm talking about ideas. Notions. Thoughts. Breakthroughs. Call them what you will, they are the beginnings of everything. In television we're all idea junkies, gobbling up hundreds of new ones all the time. Audiences want to see new ones; if not every night, than at least every day or so. We eat them up, us television folk, and then want more, more, more like a 3 year old on a bad day
There is a new book out by Steven Johnson called Where Good Ideas Come From. He's looked at everyone from Darwin to the invention of YouTube, and offers a pretty compelling survey of where great ideas come from. He's fundamentally a scientist so although the book jumps all over the place, he's mainly talking about breakthrough ideas that have changed astrophysics, medicine and the like.
But lots of what he has to say seems directly relevant to television. Reading it has made me think really hard about the genesis of new projects. Where do good ideas come from? How are they born? What stopped them dying at birth? Here's a few insights from projects I've been lucky enough to watch be born, and perhaps help along a bit -- or at least not actively stand in their way.
A journalist once asked me if it was a brave decision to say yes to The Office and looked really disappointed when I said not really. Because it wasn't. The bravery was all on other people's sides.
The story of The Office begins when Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais' partner, went on a short training scheme inside the BBC, where fairly junior people get to figure out the basics of camera work. Its one of those kinds of low level opportunities that make the BBC such an amazing place.
Most people made pretty standard documentaries, but not Stephen. He used the opportunity to film a sketch with a friend of his who did stand up: an extended riff they had been playing around with for ages. It was about a "management bollocks" boss loosely based on what they'd observed at a local radio station where they had a late night show. There is something important for me in that -- the whole genesis of the idea came from something real, in the world outside of television. A place where most people spend almost all their time, often with people they loathe.
Jon Plowman, then Head of Comedy at the BBC, showed us the film at the end of a grueling planning session. It was wonderful. We all said yes pretty easily, committed to a pilot, and then a series. They jumped to the top of the funding queue, over the heads of people with much bigger track records, some of whom were pretty pissed off by the whole thing, as I'm sure you can imagine. But it was cheap. Risk is a whole lot easier to stomach when the bill is small.
And I was, after all, running a channel -- BBC2 -- part of whose job was finding new comedy, and here was a department whose job it was to find it. As I said, hardly the toughest decision.
But then a big decision got made. The comedy department let Ricky and Stephen direct, even though they had almost no experience. That was the brave decision, and it wasn't mine. The brave decision was not to mess it up, because this is where it might all have gone wrong.
I've also been involved with just as many programs that didn't work at all. There are two kinds of failure. The kind where you don't let an idea really develop and have a failure of nerve or ambition. That's a real failure, one to be a bit embarrassed about. But there are other kinds of failure, where somehow the idea has a central mistake in it -- a generative mistake Stephen Johnson calls it - and you don't realize it until it's finished. It took two unsuccessful versions of genealogy programs before we found Who Do You Think You Are.
Everyone makes these mistakes. If you don't make these kinds of mistakes, you are not really in the game. Or as I used to say to my American team at Discovery after Id moved there -- if you don't really f... up now and again, you're not trying hard enough. I really believe that. Only people who play it safe never have really bad failures
At Discovery, we had both: some hits, and a spectacular miss. Deadliest Catch was one of the hits, a show about America's most dangerous job -- crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Thom Beers supersized a show he'd made for Discovery before, and set off a whole trend for adrenalized documentary. He put the guts and testosterone back into a kind of TV which had largely become over-educated and polite. There was Man vs Wild. And then there was Last Man Standing, a co-production between the BBC and Discovery. It worked great on BBC3, bringing a new, younger audience to anthropology; a mixed group of Americans and Brits travelled the world taking part in brutal indigenous sports. It was really well made, and I became completely wrapped up in its production. I spent a lot of real money marketing it. But Last Man Standing was dead on arrival.
It arrived without a heartbeat. This was my personal "if you don't f... up you're not trying hard enough" moment. It was agony for everyone involved. How could this happen? What had gone wrong? Last Man Standing wasn't, in the end, original enough. In America it didn't seem like a breakthrough -- it felt like a pale imitation. Smaller, not bigger. In essence, Last Man Standing wasn't quite brave enough.
I've tried to put together the lessons I've learnt from 10 years as a broadcaster into an experiment at my new company, Nutopia. Documentary events that are so big that they make the network they are designed for really stand out. Variety called them mega-docs, so we've stolen their term and stuck with it.
America the Story of US was deliberately huge. 12 hours long, introduced by President Barack Obama. At the end of his introduction he turns to the camera and says "enjoy the show". Does it get bigger than that?
So where did this start? What was the Good Idea here? Well there was the huge gamble on the History Channel's part. America the Story of US is a deliberately exuberant and populist history program - real scholarship AND entertainment. But there was also a fantasy, one of Stephen Johnson's beloved slow hunches in there too, waiting for a soft landing.
The fantasy was this: what if you were on a plane and looked out of the window, and could see the modern world rising up out of the ground as you passed overhead: cities spreading across the countryside, roads spreading out, oil derricks and pylons springing up. Wouldn't that be magical? Could we do that and make proper history speak to an audience that watched Hollywood movies and played computer games?
When the team started to assemble we realized we'd all had the same moment, looking out of planes, when we probably should have been staring at the papers in our lap, filled with facts and figures designed to tell us how to make a breakthrough. So there you are - a slow hunch after it benefited from millions of dollars.
On the other side of the table, the History Channel behaved exactly as a great broadcaster should. They were brave -- and sometimes brutal. They funded it properly, and when we needed it, pushed us really hard to stick to the essential insight and not let it become like every other kind of show.
Riffing off Stephen Johnson, don't expect a light bulb to go off and deliver a fully formed idea into your lap. It didn't happen for evolutionary theory, the Internet, or the printing press. It won't happen for you. The people involved worked hard at turning an observation into reality.
So what's the takeaway? Protect and grow your slow hunches, those germinations of background thoughts, and wait for the moment where you can find them a soft landing. Broadcasters out there - if you don't mess up really badly now and again, you aren't trying hard enough.
Yes, every now and again we all give in to that urge for copycat programming -- but recognize just how bad a habit it is and don't pretend that it's innovation. Instead be brave, show ambition. Put the money down on some really big bets. It's much more fun.
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