Saturday, 31 December 2016

Six resolutions for the news media in 2017

1. Stop the hand-wringing; start breaking stories.

2. Stop trying to be all things to all people; play to the strengths of your core medium.

3. Fight "technological determinism." Put more people, and fewer robots, in charge of setting editorial priorities.

4. Prove relevance. Allocate more resources to covering stories that directly affect your audience. Your colleagues are not your audience.

5. Promote your successes; show what changed as a result of your reporting.

6. Never assume news will be as profitable as entertainment. To change that, see point #1 above.

Friday, 30 December 2016

A "counter-intuitive" 2017

It's tempting to feel pessimistic after the events of 2016. But not defeatist. Optimism, enthusiasm and a problem-solving attitude are still widely admired and highly valued all around the world.

Determinism, however, in all its forms (environmental, political, industrial and especially technological) is to be resisted. We shape our own future. It is not to be determined by robots or extremists. As a first step I suggest dialing back hugely from social media and cable news.

We may not be able to innovate our way out of all the deeply troubling challenges we face in the year ahead. But we may just be happily surprised how many of them we can alter, improve or even eliminate. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

Let's hope 2017 is a better year and make it so!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Inspiring innovation: how to establish a "development mentality" in factual television

In times of changing audience tastes and viewing habits, the continual pressure to increase audience share with scarce or limited resources in an environment where "nothing seems to work anymore", the demand for innovation increases. But how can creators of factual television create an environment making innovation possible? A top client in factual programming suggested a practical approach: establishing a "development mentality." Here it is, step-by-step:

Step 1: recognize that even the best ideas stop working. Factual programs need to be renewed, and often. The program has to be "re-born" regularly, maybe as much as every week, probably every month, certainly every season. It doesn't happen by itself. You have to make it happen.

Step 2: the executive producer is responsible for making sure there are new things for the viewers, all the time. The EP has to be the kind of person to ask specifically for new ideas, to demand them (even though, very importantly, the ideas themselves do not have to come from the EP.) He or she has to insist all the time.

Step 3: a key question: are there people on the team who have the "development mentality?" These are people who see that the opportunity to develop new ideas for television is an advantage, not a problem or a burden. These are people who not only welcome the idea to try new things, they are not afraid of failure; failure is often associated with new ideas.

If there is no one on the team with this mentality, you have to go outside the team. The drawback is when you go outside the team you start with nothing – someone who knows nothing about the program. Also, the team will not react well to outside input generally.

The best solution is always to have these "development" people internal to the team, with (perhaps) some outside input.

Step 4: designate a person to lead the development initiative (not the EP.) This should be someone who is eager to develop new ideas for the program, someone inside the program, and also someone who is seen as a kind of leader, possibly a deputy of the EP. Their responsibility will be 60% their usual job, and 40% development of new ideas. 

Step 5: once a month, this person, the development leader, convenes a meeting with a specific result intended – generating a lot of new ideas. The development leader will bring ideas (from the internet, outside sources, etc.) that have caught their eye, and the people at the meeting will bring their own ideas. These ideas will usually be small and even weird. 

Step 6: at the meeting, led by the development leader, the group will decide which ideas to pursue. At the conclusion of the monthly meeting, the EP will then demand the list of new ideas from the development leader. It is completely the responsibility of the development executive to manage this, and to bring the new ideas to the EP. 

Step 7: the EP has to take at least some of the ideas and make them happen in the program. The ideas will have to be tried or the process will not work. Many of the ideas will fail but some will work. The successes, and there will be some, will lead to renewal of the program.

The key to success? No senior program people (and definitely not the EP) are allowed in the development meeting; these are the people who think they know what works, in other words, "we never do it that way." This will stifle the process. 

Another key: the EP and the senior management have to give the new ideas the time to succeed. They also have to be willing to recognize that failure is part of the process.

And a final point: this approach is perfect for the senior program executives and the EP. They can spend their time making the day-to-day program the best it can be, while the development team (as a result of the monthly meetings) is coming up with the new ideas to renew the program.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why "the new storytelling" isn't.

With changing audience tastes and audiences increasingly preferring their content when they want it and how they want it, there's a lot of talk about about "the new storytelling"... innovations in story structures, new technologies and new visual approaches that will win back audiences which have moved on. 

Indeed, the challenges program makers are facing are very real, very difficult. Producers who succeeded in the past know very well what worked "back then." But what worked in the past may not work today... and that may be the only reference point they have to get where they need to go. 

Of course, that's what makes our business great. You have to win (most of the time) and you have to be smart.  

About "the new storytelling" I remain skeptical. There are no short-cuts or magical solutions, technologies or formulas. But: answers will be found. Once they are, the successes will come.

In my own practice with my clients I have found that focusing strongly on the fundamentals of our storytelling increases audience share. But we have to check our storytellers, especially the most experienced - are they really delivering, or do they just say they are?

And there are several clear trends that we cannot ignore if we are to move forward and build audience share for our factual programs:

- In part due to the influence of online content, storytelling is becoming more "personal." The role of presenter and reporter is merging. People who can do this effectively will be at a premium in the market for the foreseeable future.

- Similarly, showing things as they happen, description and "discovery" is powerful for audiences and plays to television's strengths.

- Audiences increasingly demand stories that are relevant to their lives. The ability of a factual program to "prove relevance" by getting closer to the lives of the viewers is a key challenge and will ultimately  determine if the program survives. Key entry point: our colleagues are not our audience.

- Television is not online content, nor is it cinema, radio or print. Compelling stories play to the strengths of the medium: visual, logically structured, emotional, strong characters, proving change visually.

-  While character-driven storytelling remains the gold standard for audiences, very few topics can have a true "protagonist" or support the "Hero's Journey" structure. Strong topics with many conflicts directly affecting the character are the only basis for "Hero's Journey" stories. As always: the higher the stakes for the character, the stronger the story is for the audience.

- Effective marketing and promotion, including teasing inside the program is essential to success.

- All stories (and teases) must pay off. Put another way, no "betrayal" or promising something the story does not deliver. At risk? Losing the audience, and for a long, long time. Once it is lost, rebuilding trust will take years.

More than ever, audiences today are looking for answers. They get far too much BS and "fake news" elsewhere and this is not what we do. Audiences will reliably respond to stories that resonate in their lives, told in a compelling way. That's nothing new.