I’ve been involved in the media industry for close to 30 years already (yup, that number is a bit scary, I admit). Granted, I started out at a very young age. Still, I’ve been creating and producing stuff for most platforms you could think of, from publishing to radio, from TV to online, from mobile to 360/VR and more (is there more? I would imagine so 🙂 ).
The fundamental shifts we’ve seen over the past decade or so have been astonishing. Living through them it can, at times, be a bit difficult to realise that they’re actually happening, until one day you wake up to a new reality that you somehow have to immediately contend with and adjust to. This has happened to the music industry, the newspaper industry, the advertisement industry, the radio industry, the movie industry and, of course and now increasingly, the television industry.
I have a bit of in-depth knowledge of the international TV-format business, having created formats for over a decade as part of the MediaCity outfit in Finland. In the beginning the field was exciting and progressive; formats could be devised over dinner, written down on napkins with deals being written down on other napkins and voilá! you had yourself a new show on air somewhere. I’m not saying that all of these resulted in great content or even always in tolerable content, but it was an era of swashbuckling and experiments; highly fruitful ground for creative minds.
Execs at broadcasters and channels as well as CEOs and acquisition people at productions companies looked at the formidable successes of shows like Survivor, American Idol, X Factor, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire etc and so forth and – naturally – wanted a piece of the action. Of course it turned out to be easier said than done, the task of creating formats that could be turned into shows that would attract audiences away from other content in large enough numbers to justify the format fees and production costs.
Still, the broadcasters were not deterred but were actively looking for “the next big thing”. This unfortunately also led to a lot of dubious formats being pushed forward at the MIPs and the NATPEs of the world – like the year when two major players both premiered their separate “Celebrities strive to learn how to high-dive”-formats, or the strangeness that ensued when people tried to come up with increasingly unique shows of many different kinds (like the one where the main prize was to be awarded a cloned version of your deceased dog, i.e. a 100% physically authentic replica… and many many others).
Now, in the year 2018, I really feel the tide has turned. I’m just not sure if the players in the industry have fully realised this yet.
It’s been a fair few years since the latest major global formats hit the market. “The Voice” and “Married At First Sight” are probably the latest ones to arrive at the same level of fame as the previous behemoths in the format genre, and both of these have a fair few years behind them already.
At the same time broadcasters are desperately looking for the next big thing. They can see the writing on the wall – the dwindling audience figures, the new viewing habits of generations of audiences, the less-than-impressive ad revenues, the increasing competition from big OTT players – and on some level I believe they know the game might just be up soon. Unless, that is, they can find those next big things that will get people back in front of the screens, ready to give fifteen minutes of their lives to commercials in exchange for 45 minutes of their lives being entertained by whatever theme the latest format revolves around.
Patience is at a premium, though. If a new show does not perform according to expectations, it is nowadays seldom given the chance to even run for a first full series. The very real risk of having a production axed makes production companies and creators careful as well, preferring the slightly more risk-averse strategy of developing formats and content along the lines of “a mix between Survivor and Pop Factory, with celebrities!” to going out on a limb with something that feels unproven and risky.
All the while, these exercises are becoming increasingly futile. Not only because the risk-averse approach to creating and developing unique content is resulting in less attractive and interesting content, but also because the world is no longer waiting for creators to come up with something new. Gone are the days when people would eagerly be scanning the TV schedules for the premiere of the new dating show or reality series; whatever is produced, if it’s good enough it’ll get traction on social media and will be available on-demand in some form or other within a matter of minutes.
At the same time, humanity is consuming more content than ever before. More hours, months, years, millennia are spent in front of screens than ever before. There is an eager audience out there – in fact, there are a plethora of them – but they’re just not the same as before.
The idea of being spoon-fed content is so alien today, when anyone can immediately sift through a multitude of stories and narratives that are infinitely more authentic and relevant to them. Why would a viewer want to sit through yet another game show with intricate game mechanics and a surprise twist at the end, when they can spend the time half-ass watching their favourite Twitch streamer do his or her thing together with a cast of friends you’ve come to know intimately (and that communicate back to you throughout your experience, in real life)? Why would someone muster the care needed to sign up for a full season of the new dating show, where the dates are a little bit more extreme than before and the twist is that the couples are actually dating on behalf of the real protagonists (“Stand-In Dating” I believe I’ll call it when I pitch it around later this year 😉 ), when they can listen to a podcast made by initiated or interesting or well-spoken or aggravating people who talk about things that actually matter in their own lives?
I believe it’s not only the industries that are going to be utterly disrupted, it’s how we view content itself. Alternate reality content is not something out a sci-fi film; it’s unfolding in front of our eyes on all sorts of social media platforms. People are creating semi-fictional narratives, populated by characters based on real life people. Yes, those would be our dolled-up or airbrushed or thrashed realities. Yes, those would be ourselves as characters, inhabiting this alternate reality. And then, our narratives crossing over into the real world of all our friends and further, impacting emotions and creating ripples on the waters of people’s realities.
What will happen now? is a question I think we all ask ourselves. Well, some players and some people will adapt. It’s a potentially enormously rewarding game if you figure out how to play it right. And it could be utterly transformative for you yourself, on a highly personal level, if you do get it right. While the old industries and the old ways of creating content are still very much present, I believe these structures will fall and transform. We’ve seen examples where broadcasters have taken a sheen to successful YouTubers and graciously “awarded” them with their own TV shows, naturally formatted according to the best TV standards with the help of TV experts. Needless to say, these have bombed. Tomorrows equivalent will be different; a creator with a unique voice and a strong following will be handsomely rewarded for bringing his or her traits and uptake to any major player, and will be calling the shots from day one. The broadcasters need these creators. The creators do not necessarily need anything from the broadcasters.
In many a sense this is all about breaking new ground. It’s just that it’s new ground for some, like the traditional broadcasters or the traditional production companies. For many others, it’s their own playground that they know intimately.
For us as creators – what should we do? We need to re-educate ourselves. We mostly know how to build a narrative, no matter if it’s a game show or a documentary, a drama series or a dating show. Some know one area better, some another. But now, now we need more knowledge. We need to immerse ourselves in the content on offer on new platforms, in the banter and discussions going on, in the way people connect – be it in positive or negative ways – and feed off of each other. And we have to learn how to let people into our narratives. Not necessarily in disruptive ways, but rather in ways that will allow us to create better and more relevant stories, deeper and more meaningful interaction. Do that, and we’ll all win.