During the eight years I’ve been working in the television format field, I’ve nearly lost track of all the people who’ve claimed they were going to ”disrupt television”. I’ll freely admit that I’ve echoed that sentiment too, over the years. Moreover, I’ll readily admit that I’ve not given up on it either. Disrupt television, and you’ll be onto a goldmine; not only financially, but also socially and storytelling-wise.
Disrupting television is, however, a lot easier said than done. Many attempts have been made, and television as a whole has shrugged its shoulders and carried on with business as usual. For anyone contemplating being the person to actually disrupt television, here are six starting points to take note of (and please note there is no finger-pointing here, these points are conclusions I’ve come to myself, after having banged my head on each and every of these walls at one point or another):
Understand the people in television
This might be news to some, but the television industry is made up of hundreds of thousands of people. The might just have started out or they might have been in the biz for decades; they might be operating cameras or work as show runners, or they might be in the upper echelons of major broadcasters. They’re all people, though. And they all have the same traits as people overall; some are reluctant to change, some embrace it. Some are in it for the money, some for the art, and so on. What anyone wanting to disrupt television need to embrace is the simple fact that they need to take into account a long history of how things have been done, and try to argue against this history, while viewing figures are still as strong as ever. I saw a good example of this issue at MIPCOM 2012, when YouTube held a workshop for producers – “How to work with YouTube” – where there was very little discussion and quite a lot of “listen to us telling you how you should function and produce”. Yes, YouTube has a lot of weight to throw around, but at the same time, actually listening to and respecting your counterpart is usually a good way to start off collaborations. Research the people, how they talk and how they function, so that you can talk on the same level to them.
Actually watch some TV to start with
It’s interesting, how many of the people I’ve met working on distruptive stuff that don’t actually watch television. They might have a favorite series, that they torrent once a week, or they might catch sports events or the occasional other event, but they don’t watch television. It should be an essential part of anyone working on distrupting a field, to familiarize themselves with that field of activity before attempting to disrupt it. Again, look at it as research. But never just watch TV. Stay focused and analyze what you see, mirroring your analysis against what you’re working on.
Make it easier, or cheaper, or better
There are only three ways you will gain enough interest for whatever it is you are doing for it to get any sort of traction within the TV industry. Whatever it is that you’re trying to do it has to make people’s work or their output or their connection to the audience either easier or cheaper or better. Preferrably all three, of course; if a choice has to be made I, as a creator, would go for better over easier and easier over cheaper; other people in the biz would probably have other preferences.
Understand that there is no one fix for all
Again, so many of the people I talk to claim that their solution will work across the TV industry. It won’t – simple as that. If it’s not down to territories and cultural identities and tradition, it’s down to even more basic stuff such as audience and genres and broadcaster policies and ratings. A thorough market research is the one thing essential to perform to break through this. You need to know WHO would need what you have on offer and have a pretty good guess as to HOW they might react when you pitch it to them. Even then, if you’ve managed to land a deal, make sure you keep check on everything you can keep check on; even within the walls of a broadcaster, the differences between different departments – silos – might be staggering.
The audience is – again – your channel
I wrote a post earlier on the audience being your channel to utilize to connect to other members of the audience. The same goes for broadcasters; the best way to get to them is through their viewers, without TV being attached at all from the beginning. Take for example the instant social media behemoth that is Twitter. Since people have started using Twitter and discover that the instant communication possibility is both exhilirating, interesting and a little bit frightening, and that it is as made for tweeting and commenting along to different types of content, broadcasters have begun to take note as well. They HAD to, as people were talking about their shows on Twitter anyway; now they hashtag every other show on their channels. By not giving a damn about the TV industry, Twitter impacted it more than many other ventures around the world.
Be prepared to let partners in, or to let go of control
Finally, there is next to no way that you will have your solution to yourself, if you want to get into the industry and make an impact. Just as with TV formats, where the first broadcaster to agree to broadcast a first series in most cases automatically assume that 20-30% of the rights to the format should belong to them. And they usually do. Also, distributors, co-production partners etc, they all have their say and their claim on percentages of your idea. My suggestion would be to lawyer up and defend your corner and your proposal – within the limits of decent behaviour and common sense, naturally.