The Quest for the next Big Entertainment Hit
'The Quest,' one of the 8 (or so) classic Storytelling formats. Whether it was King Arthur searching for the elusive Holy Grail or the various gangs in GOT who are lusting to get their hands on the Iron Throne - it's always been a thrilling ride, and we are always drawn to it.
From a TV perspective, the last few years have seen chest loads of treasures unearthed on the 'Drama Quest'. From Broadchurch to Breaking Bad, every channel has been showing off these riches, and, by & large they have been a true feast for both our eyes & our hearts! Brilliant writing, great acting and lavish production standards.
With 24 hour catch up, every decent channel and device awash with this wonderful art, we could choose to spend all our waking hours immersed in this genre only. So please bow or curtsey gracefully and salute these Lords & Ladies of Drama. Long may they reign!
However, there is a wider mystery at hand here. One that is currently baffling most TV producers and commissioning teams alike- even the blessed Agatha Christie would have struggled to construct a plot to match this.
Simply put fellow Questers, where oh where is the next global entertainment hit going to come from?
Now, there are some fabulous entertainment shows on the air that are still attracting massive audiences; Strictly Come Dancing and I'm a Celebrity to name a few that. Whilst they are still thriving in dear old blighty, these are long established shows.
If you go in search for a brand new show and find yourself lance in hand, riding a fine white horse in the hunting fields of MIP or NATTPE, then as my dear old Auntie Mildred would have said:
"You will find bugger all, my dear ".
Arguably the last big new hit was Talpa's The Voice, but that was at least 8 years ago. So given the indisputable fact that audiences love this genre, then what on earth is going on here?
Has the Creative Genie escaped from his bottle and stolen all the 'Entertainment Magic' from the highly talented producers and development teams in the land? No, not in my humble opinion.
Has there been too much emphasis on finding the next Talent Music Show. There is a ring of truth in this, as I have witnessed many a 'new, improved version' of The X Factor, Idol, The Voice etc in pitch documents various, but I do not believe that this is really the root cause. Is there simply a lack of great on-screen talent to drive these shows into greater glory? No, this is not the answer.
Some of us older folk might mourn the loss of Cilla Black, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies and Bruce Forsyth from our screens and lives, but with the likes of Ant and Dec still going gangbusters then the current generation is well served from this perspective.
So, in my own personal Quest to solve, or at least establish a more robust clue to this mystery, then I am wandering back to the beginners' slopes and back to basics to see if I can refine my technique, rather than rush higher up the mountain and get lost off-piste.
The fact still remains that the next big hit will be developed either on US or UK shores. I am not decrying the wonderful creative talent that exists elsewhere on our fine planet, but even if a show originates from a shore elsewhere, until it has been a smash success in either or both of these two countries, then it is highly unlikely to ever reach the dizzy heights of being a 'global hit '.
Ok, that bit was easy. So we can still do our snow plough turn, good. Next up, let's have a look at our Parallel skiing skills.
The greatest, biggest and longest running TV entertainment shows are 'Brands'. In the truest sense of the word, they are as big as the likes of Coca-Cola, Apple and Persil. The live in the same glorious suite, with millions and millions of loyal, purchasing customers across each year of their lifespan. Some of these ‘TV brands’ are deeply embedded in the 'fabric of the Nation'.
They are definitely not 'products', as 'products' come and go and they do not sustain. They may have their moment(s) in the sun, but not too many of them.
We can now move a little higher up the mountain and begin to link out turns better - let's go 'carving'.
Brands possess special qualities and they are not built in one swift instance. They are nurtured, improved, protected and carefully promoted. As many of you will agree, this takes time, patience and a belief system that you have something very rare in your possession.
The core element of any brand is authenticity and genuine consumer trust attached as the result of this precious commodity. True Brands are becoming rarer. Which is why big, global Entertainment shows are becoming rarer. No-one is truly committing to building 'brands' in this genre. Yes, they want the big hit but without the long-term commitment required to see this through.
Good, my carving still looks in good shape, but now it is time to tighten my bindings and head off to those scary mogul fields (don't you just hate them!)
In this terrain there is no beginner's luck, you may get down this run in one piece on one occasion, but you are bound to fall the next time unless you are prepared to 'perfect your technique’ and that requires practice, practice, practice.
Let's have a closer examination of the conditions that can help us breed that next BIG SHOW.
1- Brand Launcher
TV and the surrounding content ecosystem is still the best 'brand launcher' this country has. TV programmes can achieve audiences of 1 mill, 2 mill, or even 5 mill (although that is increasingly difficult outside drama) on the very first episode outing.
Now just think about that for a moment. The consumer (audience) has a massive array of content choice in-front of them, but still the first episodes of shows can hit these audience heights on the very first day on the 'retail shelf'.
Can you imagine launching any other consumer brand and achieving sales of 1 mill or even 5 mill units on the very first day in store? Nope, you can't, because it just does not happen anywhere else. So we have a great opportunity to launch our new show — no excuses there
But even with these immense brand launching channels at their disposal, we still have a massive 'sampling issue' to contend with. How do we get as many viewers as possible to watch that first episode?
In former days, with only three to four channels and limited choice, viewers were mainly attracted to shows by the main broadcasters own on-air marketing and even via the classic TV listings mags such as The Radio or TV Times. In fact, I even remember, as a child, queueing at the newsagents to get a Christmas edition of the TV Times!
Given the huge audiences watching the main TV channels in those nostalgic times, then all new shows had a brilliant advertising and marketing platform. As long as you got a commission and a decent slot, then there was a really strong position in respect of customers coming to your first showing — after that, they decided whether they liked what you put in front of them or not.
3 - Marketing
In this multi-channel environment, with smaller audiences visiting individual channels/platforms, the conditions have dramatically changed. The main broadcasters own on-air marketing activities are still huge in total ratings terms, but only a few shows get access to this 'gold inventory'. Even then, vast sways of the public may be blissfully unaware that your new ‘big, potential global hit show’ is about to air.
This unearths one of our first big issues; the lack of marketing support given to individual shows by many of the channel/platform/device owners.
They simply are not spending as much marketing cash as they should do. Whilst it’s true that big broadcasters such as Sky do invest heavily, this is primarily selling the subscription platform to viewers, even if these use individual show marketing to achieve that task. This is somewhat odd given that most of these businesses are highly dependent upon advertising £s.
Commercial teams ask client companies to invest more revenue to build their brands, whilst their own bosses are not building their own brands - hmmm...doesn't add up does it?
Every brand and indeed every product has a marketing budget embedded in their business plan, but in TV land that's just not the case. I spent many a year confused by the lack of a marketing budget line in most TV commissions and with the increased pressure on advertising revenue, and the downward spiral of many commissioning tariffs, then I just cannot see this position shifting in the near future.
4 – Short-termism
Short-termism, an ongoing point of angst in my own belief system ( hence why it creeps into all my blogs), is often the 'devil' here.
I always held the view that the US TV environment was brutal in the way that it killed off shows if rating levels did not hit the required threshold that unlocked ad revenue targets for the main networks. But the UK market is now following that same trend.
If a show fails to hit a certain audience level on series 1, then it is frequently 'washed away,' never to be seen again. There appears to be a lack of patience to help a show 'build audiences'. Very few new programmes will be a massive hit in their first series, but they might be in that elusive success club by series three- on their way to becoming a 'Brand,' rather than a 'Product'.
When you explore parallels in the consumer brand world, you would expect a good three year gestation period in order to achieve real revenue/profit streams. Even in a self-obsessed instant gratification world, there are few examples of overnight success.
The BBC, having the luxury of not playing the advertising game in the UK, has long nurtured new shows and built some of them into 'power brands' after years of continued investment. Often BBC2 has been the 'nursery slopes' to grow these shows and then convert them across to the mother Channel and into 'adulthood'.
Don't ever think the BBC is not paranoid about ratings — because they definitely are! However, they do remain patient and trust in shows even if the first few series are only 'fair to middling' in audience terms. Without this strategy, the Great British Bake Off would have never reached the dizzy heights of 14 million viewers.
ITV also built a smash hit amongst the millennial crowd with their re-imagining of Love Island, being brave, investing huge sums on an ITV2 commission and keeping the faith after a so-so series 1. But as a result, they were massively rewarded by the subsequent seasons. So it can be done, good people.
Ok time to get on the Chair Lift and retire to the 'apres-ski' bar to chat about our day on the entertainment slopes.
The Quest to find the next big global entertainment hit is definitely worth pursuing. As in all Quests, this is no easy task. However, with the new kids on the block Apple, Netflix, Amazon and their gang now looking beyond drama to build their content empires, this may lead to a new order that is prepared to invest, remain patient and build such brands. More importantly, it may 'wake up' the traditional broadcasters and get them to re-examine their game.
There is clear evidence from the drama genre to back up this response mechanic. The quality of drama is so high precisely because the competitive market set is so fierce. Traditionally, broadcasters have no option but to compete with the enormous investment budgets ploughed into this area by the 'new kids'.
Additionally, the lead times in drama are so long - two to three years from initial concept to screen-that most of the channel/platform players remain 'patient' with this area, and, unless the first series is a real ratings disaster then a second series is sure to follow.
I also believe that many drama commissioning teams are 'nervous' of ditching talent relationships they build in these lands and by the way, 'writing talent' are the key people I am talking about here ( writers are the 'Superstars ' of Drama ).
So saddle up your horse, dust off your best armour and if you want to strut your stuff on the beaches of Cannes or LA, please don't give up on the Quest as the prize for that next big global entertainment hit will be VERY BIG indeed.