The Black Swan tells you why network television sucks

The Black Swan tells you why network television sucksThe Wall Street Journal published an article on Sunday about how networks test new TV series. Basically, they pick fifty or so people, ask them to watch an episode of a new show, then have them rate the show as they watch it.

And then network executives are surprised that their shows suck?

Here’s a telling excerpt from the article:

Most shows, he added, don’t test well, and that is especially true for anything a little different. Perhaps the most famous show to test poorly, he recalled, was the NBC hit “Seinfeld,” whose characters weren’t seen as likable enough.

Exactly. One of the most popular shows in television history didn’t test well with its initial audience. When you think about it, that’s almost exactly the point.

If your audience is everyone, your audience is no one

If you make a television show for everyone, you’ll make a television show that’s just boring enough for everyone to ignore it. Sure, you might avoid an actively hostile audience. But you’re highly unlikely to find any fans.

It’s a classic dilemma for any artist. Adding a profit motive to the art only makes it worse. In order to have an audience, you have to say or do something that someone disagrees with. It’s the only way you’ll find people that agree with you enough to become a fan. But the profit motive pushes companies to avoid audience discomfort like the plague.

Network television viewership is down. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening as video content is increasingly democratized. Yes, the sheer number of available shows will hurt the networks’ case. But it’s not just the number of shows. It’s the fact that the shows are designed to serve specific niches.

HBO’s Silicon Valley targets a specific audience. So does AMC’s The Walking Dead. The major networks are trying to appeal to a much larger audience. In an age where you had two or three competitors, you might have won. When you’re competing against hundreds of different shows, plus nearly limitless on-demand options, you’re doomed.

The Black Swan tells us success is unpredictable

What about The Black Swan? That’s the book by Nassim Taleb. The Black Swan will tell you that predicting the next popular television show is pretty much impossible.

Look at the above quote about Seinfeld’s test results. If test results were the only criterion for putting a show on television, Seinfeld would never have made it. And all the failed shows that did receive the green light likely tested well.

I bet if you plotted the pilot test results against audience numbers, just for the shows that were approved, you’d see zero correlation. The factors that determine whether a show will succeed or not simply aren’t measurable in advance.

So many cultural elements are at play. You can’t predict whether an influencer will push her social clique to watch a show, which will then reach another influencer, and so on. You can’t foresee the viral path to success.

What should networks do, if they really wanted to find a blockbuster show or two? Place as many disparate bets as possible. Forego the audience tests. Try to find as many shows as you can that serve as many different niches in as many different ways as possible. You’re trying to manufacture your own luck.

But, of course, that’s exactly what a television network won’t do. The network needs to sell advertisers on the show. Advertisers won’t be excited about a niche audience. NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox all need to target absolutely as large of an audience as possible. And in an age where people can scratch their entertainment itch in any number of ways, the networks are losing.

Risk aversion is one of the core behaviors at play here. As an executive, you don’t want to go out on a limb, and risk your job by advocating an “out there” show. You’d rather greenlight a blasé pilot that tests well and then gets routinely ignored. In that case, you did your job. You’ll likely live to see another season.

That’s the root of the advantage had by small players in almost any industry. They can, and should, take risks that behemoths can’t stomach. The big four television networks are your classic behemoths, ripe for disruption. They’re all still profitable, but their success is waning. They’re using an antiquated model, with competitors like Netflix, Amazon, and various Internet-based video distributors flanking them.

The power of the disinterested observer

Like with department stores, which I wrote about earlier this week, it’s easy to see the trend when you’re not invested in it. My paycheck isn’t tied to the success or failure of the classic television network business model. It’s easy for me to connect their tactics with their diminishing financial performance.

But for the players themselves, it’s a different story. They’re so close to the action. Their historical success is so easy to recall. If only they pick the right shows, with the right talent, they’ll recapture their lost glory.

The Black Swan says otherwise. The network executives build false confidence in their predictive capabilities, then they’re surprised when their shows fail. Rather than embracing the uncertainty of television success, they’re zooming in on one particular path. It’s a sad story, but at the same time, it’s the natural order of a market economy.

The lesson for all of us is to ring our inner alarm bell when we’re doing something strictly to seek comfort. The television test audience is a classic example. It has no predictive value. All it does is let an executive cover his ass when a show flops.

Be honest with yourself. Know whether your tactics have a defensible value. If not, have the courage to ditch them. Embrace the fact that by running toward discomfort, you’re likely uncovering a novel competitive advantage.

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