THE BLOG
05/28/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

The DNA of Must-See TV: Where Don Draper Meets Honey Boo Boo

Getty Images

The nation's sweetheart Princess Susannah is kidnapped and the ransom for her safe return is that the prime minister of Britain will have sex with a pig live on national television. Now that's entertainment. It's the premise of the great British drama Black Mirror. For the next 44 minutes I was sitting on the edge of my seat trying not to blink so I won't miss a single frame.

This is TV at its best -- strong characters going through a life changing experience right in front of my amazed eyes. I wouldn't dream of flipping channels from that. Perhaps it was an attempt to eradicate the image of the prime minister shagging a pig that got me thinking about what is it that makes truly entertaining content bring me to that level of engagement and excitement.

TV viewers have an implicit contract with the content they consume. We give up some of our attention and time and in return we want to be amused, entertained, excited, and even (rarely) educated. The "sanction" for violating the deal is immediate -- flipping channels, checking what's new on Facebook or even (rarely) actually doing something, all things content creators try to prevent at all cost.

In order to keep us tuned-in, content creation relies on two people -- one is the "Storyteller" and the other is the "Moments Generator." The storyteller creates a world and builds a window for us to peek into -- changing viewer attitude from apathetic to curious, and creating a world whose rules we understand. When the viewer is involved enough, the moments-generator comes on the scene. His role is to shock and rock the stable reality created by the storyteller so that it would change dramatically.

This is true for all content -- drama, comedy, game show, reality TV and even a football match - they are all entertaining content that contains a strong story with the potential for unforgettable moments. It may seem strange, but basically it doesn't matter if you are watching House of Cards, Game of Thrones or Duck Dynasty -- the basic mechanisms are the same, and they all address needs that are more similar than you would expect.

While the storyteller lays the foundation for the status quo, the moment generator challenges it. Challenging the status quo can be a major event -- like an alien invasion or even an Island Council, where after we established a story of a group of strangers stranded on a deserted island, we make them overthrow each other -- or, it can be small, like sending one of the Kardashians to anal bleaching.

We often lose interest after a short period of time because the content is a great story but has no decent twist or it has great moments that happen to characters we don't care enough about. In this day and age no development executive can afford to neglect one of those two ingredients when they hear a new idea. It doesn't matter whether it's a period drama or a cheap daytime chat show.

It wasn't always so critical. In the past I doubt anyone even thought of that. When I grew up, sometime in the eighties, a quiz show called Mastermind was aired in the middle of the prime time. Four anonymous people I knew nothing about apart from their occupation were asked questions about topics that had no relevance to my life. The result, like a test at school, not a complete waste of time, but let's be honest -- not really something to talk about at the proverbial office water cooler the next day. Nice. It was such a cold show, the director didn't even bother to give us close up of the disappointed or excited face of the contestant who usually won books or some other not-life-changing kind of prize. Nice.

In today's world, "nice" is far from enough. Even in a game show, our two professionals -- the storyteller and the moment generator need to roll up their sleeves and pour in some sweat. The storyteller casts colorful characters and sets up the entry points, making it fascinating and easy to join the story, they also typically make sure we know quite a lot about the participants and why they are in this contest. The moments-generator increases the risk by enlarging the scale of the event, and produces moments so significant that it is impossible to ignore or miss them.

In the example of game shows -- the characters contain depth and color and the general knowledge quiz is only a tool to examine their "true" nature. It's no coincidence that most game shows on prime time today are not multiplayer any more, and have one person (or two working as a team -- because that created dialogue to further enhance our involvement) at the center. It creates a better story and makes it easier for the viewer to relate. The awards are life-changing, so the stakes are much higher. Even the set, the lightning and the music indicate that a dramatic moment is about to happen and you wouldn't want to miss it.

If in the '80s Mastermind answered the question how much does Jon Doe knows about 18th century architecture -- today's Million Dollar Money Drop is the dramatic journey of a lovely couple who are willing to open a window into their intimate relationship. They share their desire to open a bakery and upgrade their lives. Now that I know their story, I'm already hooked and want to see the critical (and generated) moment in which they must decide to risk their money, and gasp when it all falls down the trapdoor. We all know and recognize these critical-dramatic-life-changing moments and when one is happening in front our eyes, we cannot stop watching.

Whether you're a screenwriter who writes for Mad Men or the creator of the Kardashians, a sports broadcasting editor or the host of a morning show -- we are all storytellers and moments generators. Understanding that these are two different pieces helps identify where the weakest part of the content is, and make it better. Effective and successful content not only achieves a good balance between the two but also uses them to nourish each other and propel the show forward.