Kevin Reilly, entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting Company, says that building awareness of new shows online before they premiere has become its new mantra. Reilly, giving the keynote this afternoon in Cannes, highlighted the new comedy New Girl as an example of how Fox uses social networks to build awareness. The network pre-released an episode on iTunes and VOD before it even aired the pilot, and got 2 million downloads. Fox has given New Girl an early back-nine pickup after two highly rated airings, bringing the order for the Zooey Deschanel comedy to 24 episodes. Reilly said that Fox really started exploiting social media with Glee. The show was streamed on Hulu before its TV premiere, and songs were pre-released on iTunes to keep social media chatter going. Reilly said: “The series premiered as a bona fide hit, which I am certain would not have been the case had we marketed it in a more traditional way.” Here’s the full transcript of Reilly’s speech:
A common interpretation is that all Hollywood executives are idiots. Granted, I’ve known quite a few who have personally contributed to that interpretation — but it’s not why it continues to ring true.
What it really speaks to is an underlying truth about creativity itself.
And it takes on new meaning in this time of massive, unnerving shifts in the marketplace. Having worked the better part of my 25 year career as a creative executive in our business, there are many days when I know very little. But I remain enamored with creative people and energized by magical moments of inspiration.
I’ve spent a lot of time encouraging, corralling, protecting and sparring with creative people. And I head up a television network– an organization that strives to nurture talent through a process in which their original ideas become a mass appeal product. Unfortunately, through this process, executives often become part of the problem in their attempts to help.
The challenge is that agendas rarely line up.
One of the things I truly enjoy about my job is the dynamic nature of having a foot in each world– the world of the talent, who create our product– and the world of our business in which we market, distribute and monetize that product.
On any given day straddling that relationship is either incredibly stimulating… or a disaster. I love talent because they are passionate. They can be emotional and irrational and unpredictable… and that’s okay, because all we want is something exciting on the page and on the screen.
However, in business, we like things to be quantifiable and predictable. I don’t really want my head of finance to be passionate and emotional. As a result, what seems obvious or logical in the boardroom doesn’t often translate in the writer’s room.
I have found myself in the crosshairs of this conflict many times. And so it astounds me when we succeed in moving a creative idea through a large collaborative system while still retaining the spark of eccentricity and individuality. And it’s nothing short of amazing when those ideas somehow touch and move millions. THAT is the magic of our medium.
I’ve heard details early in the pitch stage of an idea — David Chase telling stories about his New Jersey neighborhood that became the backdrop of the Sopranos… Ryan Murphy recounting how he was an outcast in his high school Glee Club — idiosyncratic details that struck a universal chord.
Clearly, many rules had to be followed — and a system adhered to… but some rules had to be broken along the way or the end result would never have been so unique. This is the theme I’m obsessed with: what makes an idea viable versus what’s needed to make it truly original. I’m sure we all strive for creativity every day. We all want to be a friend of innovation. And yet, for all the ambition and good intentions, far too often we end up with conventional product and organizations that can’t re-imagine their own futures. How does that happen? Particularly now, at a time when we need it most.
I recently read a survey from IBM’s Institute for Business Value, that polls more than 1500 CEO’s worldwide. In 2010, the CEO’s rated creativity as the number one leadership competency to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world. Creativity — above management, discipline, integrity or even vision. In fact, one of the primary takeaways from the survey was — and I quote — “The accelerating complexity and velocity of a world that is operating as a massively interconnected system.”
It’s remarkable that eighty percent of the CEO’s said that business is growing so complex that it literally demands new ways of thinking.
So what is creativity?
If you take a look at how the brain actually functions during the creative process it begins to illuminate some of the mystery. Recent studies into the underlying brain activity are emerging from neuroscience. Now to be clear, if I had paid attention in my science classes I might not have gone into television. But I have done some reading on the matter, and like any good executive, I feel that makes me an expert. So here’s the gist of it…
When we first try to solve a problem, we concentrate on obvious facts and solutions. If the answer doesn’t come, our brain scans for remote memories and distant information — and in a magic flash of inspiration pulls them together into a single new idea. In this process, we’re more accepting of mistakes than during other brain functions. In times of anxiety, clear rules reduce chaos– yet when we are bored, our brains seek change. It’s in this space between anxiety and boredom where creativity flourishes.
What I find compelling about all of this is that a contradictory process is wired inside our very nature. Creativity itself is, in essence, a reversing of gears — to know and to unknow simultaneously. We know instinctively that nurturing contradiction — breaking the rules, if you will — is the best way to light a creative spark. And yet, we can’t seem to liberate ourselves from the rules.
Let’s start at the core of our business and work outward. The center of what we do, of course, is our creative content– our television programs — which continue to resonate with global audiences across all platforms.
Fox Broadcasting has been America’s top network with young adults for a record seven years running… but our network is only as good as our shows. I’ve been asked about common threads that informed my decisions about hit shows… My main response is that I work with talented creators who are not afraid to challenge convention. But how do I KNOW that a show will work is the usual follow up question. The truth is, in some ways, the less I am sure, the more excited I am about the possibilities.
Again, rules reduce chaos and error — on the edge of chaos is where most of the really original ideas are to be found. If there is specificity at the center of that idea, even if there are warning signs about why it will not work, THAT’S the opportunity.
Many successes are the result of happy accidents. I’ve come to be as respectful of that, as I am of clear vision. In fact, I think one important aspect of clear vision is setting up the possibility for a happy accident. Like any executive, I put a high value on analysis and strategic thinking. However, I’ve also seen over-thinking squeeze out innovation and grind down alternative points of view.
We often look to research to guide our decision. I’ve certainly found research to be a helpful tool, and we do a fair amount of it on both programming and marketing materials. I’ve seen it accurately identify a break-out show like ER for example, that many executives didn’t understand at first.
We used research during our rebranding of the FX Network, which at the time was a low rated and ignored channel. We were launching a bold new drama, The Shield — and we used research to identify materials — that our target audience found the most disruptive and exciting. Then again, if we had researched our plans for the ambitious overhaul of the channel, we might not have done it at all.
The fact is, if I had relied solely on research results, I would never have gone forward with some of the shows that I am most proud of and that marked some of my biggest successes. The Office was a horrifically testing pilot, even though a very small base of young people loved it. American fans of the British original were disappointed and the new audience thought Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, was mean spirited and the show depressing and boring. We tested Glee four times, all with the same negative result: it was a show that nobody liked. It didn’t fit neatly into any reference bucket: comedy, drama or musical. As a result, it seemed to be rejected. Therein lies the trap — when you poll people about what they want, they don’t know how to tell you they want or like things they can’t yet imagine.
Steve Jobs made products that people didn’t know they couldn’t live without. When Jim Cameron was making Avatar, few could have imagined that tall blue people was something the world wanted to see. Far more movies and television shows have failed for being bland than being bold.
Unfortunately when a bold bet fails it’s met with the question, “what were you thinking?” So more often than not, we stick to the formula. Yet I’ve rarely heard asked, “What were you thinking putting on a derivative, boring show that looked like everything else?” I don’t understand that. I think now, more than ever, the audience simply won’t indulge it.
Now let’s go up a level and talk about creativity in organizations. I concur with the CEO poll about the need for creative thinking in business. The disconnect, I believe, is that if you drilled into the culture and organizational structure of the businesses that many of those same CEO’s run, I bet you’d find little that encourages free thinking and making mistakes.
Success is often built on the shoulders of failure – from which new configurations emerge. There was an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal about some American companies rewarding employees for bold failures in an effort to spur innovation. It cites a study that shows the most successful people also tend to be those with the most failures. The rewards are meant to reinforce what was learned from the failure, rather than sending the message: “You screwed up”.
The tendency in the development pipeline of any organization is to fix things beyond recognition. In the excellent book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” author Steven Johnson cites an interesting example of this that he calls the allegory of the concept car. You go to an auto show and discover an incredibly exciting and forward thinking concept car, fresh out of the designers brain. Then, 5 years later your car finally comes to market and it has been whittled down from a Ferrari to a Yugo. How does this happen? It turns out the designer sent it to the engineers who made some adjustments and the manufacturing team made some other compromises and sales added their requirements. Until the final product looks just like every other uninspired car on the market.
There are plenty of management books about working together through a process, but I’ll just add one pithy insight from one of my show business heroes, Lorne Michaels. One time in the middle of trying to fix a show, with a big scrum of producers and executives focusing on subplots and secondary characters, Lorne brought clarity to the chaos by simply saying, “Let’s cut back to the live part of the tree”.
It’s what’s alive at the center of any idea or product that has to be preserved through the process. Creative incubation requires open-ended, uninterrupted time — to step away from a problem we’re trying to solve. It’s why people have clarity when they’re on a walk or a drive. However the pace and bottom line demands of business driven by “more, bigger, faster” often require instant solutions. Ironically, the best way to insure that innovation gets attention is to schedule time for it.
I’m lucky to be part of a large corporate culture where, from the top down, innovative thinking is encouraged. At Fox Broadcasting we recently took stock and shifted some of our priorities to encourage and reward more time spent on free thinking and exploring. We sponsor both individuals and groups who take initiative on projects and ideas they find stimulating. We’re trying to get creative people to spend a little less time being constrained by their day to day responsibilities.
For example we started a division-wide program called the Innovators Group– kind of a think tank style program where small teams explore a broad range of industry challenges and opportunities. Insights that spark new thinking are shared with the larger organization. All of the efforts will culminate in a fun awards ceremony with significant prizes going to those who spurred the most thinking or at the least put the most effort in.
I like efforts like these, but businesses needs to be structured and results measurable. What’s important is to build new ideas into the heart of an organization, not bolt on groups to an organization stuck with an outdated play-book.
Now, lets scope out further and look at creativity in our media ecosystem. Our business is more challenging than ever. For a long time when someone said “I’m going to watch TV”, it was clear what that meant. Now the marketplace is fragmented. And consumer behavior is evolving amidst an explosion of new technologies. In the interconnected world it seems there is something for anyone, but nothing for everyone.
In the U.S., over the last 10 years, we’ve gone from 8,000 telecasts per week to nearly 20,000 telecasts per week on more than 950 channels. 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute on YouTube. DVR penetration is over 40%. And for some of our top rated shows, less than 50% of the viewers watch live. The ecosystem includes streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. And there are almost 16 million web connected TV’s in the U.S. alone — and growing.
We’re transforming from a PC centric universe to a mobile centric universe. 86% of mobile web users are online when watching TV. The bottom line is clear: People want choice, mobility and free. We’re no longer just competing against other channels; we’re competing against time and technology. With all that said, I firmly believe what we have been experiencing is creative destruction, from which we will reap huge benefits and capitalize on vast potential, IF we have a creative mindset.
Remember the balance between the known and the unknown?
Let’s start with the known… After years of massive growth in technologies and devices and rampant speculation about what the future will hold and an endless quest for– “The next big thing,” there is some order coming to the universe.
It turns out that the next big thing is going to include the same old big thing, TV. For all the upheaval, the web — in both content creation and advertising — is showing its limitations, which has re-affirmed the value of premium TV content.
There is simply nothing better than a television program to create an emotional connection with a viewer. And there is simply no better platform to create and drive global brands than a television network. Potent TV franchises can migrate across all technologies and behaviors. We’re no longer at a place where content gives way to technology. They need us, and we need them.
The future isn’t either traditional or digital, it’s a feedback loop between the two. And that’s exciting. But then there is the unknown.
The network, as a linear platform for delivering programs and tethering the viewer is transforming. So much so, that it requires creative thinking about what a network is — and our relationship with our viewers. The audience is in a gradual, but definite migration away from the scheduled programming that has traditionally bound them to our networks.
In a connected world in which individuals have the ability to choose from the best of TV past and present, more and more the audience will rely on filtering mechanisms and social networks to navigate and inform their choices.
There is a reason that Facebook just kicked social TV into high gear. As one blogger said: “When people start consuming content through Facebook, it enables a new world of friend-to-friend discovery that is potentially worth more than any promo campaign on the planet”. In other words, better than any network today can provide. But as I said a few minutes ago, the edge of chaos is where creativity can reach its potential. Simply, we can maximize our value by unknowing some of what we are most sure of.
For example, to date, our network business model has been set up to count impressions. What we have not quite figured out yet is how to put a value on expressions. We have traditionally thought of our audience as cumulative numbers and segments across demographic breaks. More and more we have to think of the audience as people, even as individuals. Television fans want to get involved and be counted.
It’s how creative we are in engaging those fans, and keeping them connected even as they may move away from the traditional network– that will determine how potent and profitable we will be in the future. We also have to think more creatively about data– both in how we manage the data of our willing audience and how we manage the metadata in our video libraries.
If I wasn’t great in science classes, I was even worse in computer class. So discussing data is best left to someone else. But I can tell you, it’s vitally important. Engaging viewers beyond the program and counting expressions and mining data means media companies will have to view their audience in a new multi-dimensional manner.
Our content is the driver, but from here on in, we are going to have to invite the audience to watch. Try as we might, it will get increasingly more difficult to tell them what to watch. We can have a vast impact by simply opening up our thinking about the traditional elements of our business.
Here is one way we’ve done this at Fox. Historically, networks use all available resources to create an event around a series launch. As competition has soared in the U.S., marketing campaigns have become more costly and more robust. Thankfully, a good show and an effective campaign can still break through the clutter. Unfortunately, we find that many of our promotional messages — and often the shows themselves– are simply not penetrating the culture. So a few seasons ago we shifted our mind-set and embraced a new philosophy for the interconnected age: It is better to be shown than to be sold.
If we let the audience see a show BEFORE premiering and before our marketing reaches critical mass, the power of the social networks can create loyalists who are committed to help us spread the word. These brand ambassadors can recruit audience in a far more convincing way than we can with any campaign. We started with Glee. We used the traditional scheduling power of a big audience and previewed the show behind American Idol almost four months before the series premiered. Frankly, that preview rating was less than stellar and many thought we misfired with the strategy.
However, it was all about getting the social networks to light up and the conversation to begin. We continued to stream the show on Hulu before the premiere and we pre-released several songs on iTunes to keep the chatter going.
The series premiered as a bone-fide hit, which I am certain would not have been the case had we marketed it in a more traditional way.
This fall we took that strategy one step further with a new comedy — NEW GIRL. Even before we aired the pilot, we pre-released the full episode on iTunes and VOD. We had over two million downloads prior to air. Word of mouth on Twitter and Facebook was overwhelmingly positive and spiked both viewer awareness and intent to view. The show opened with the biggest comedy ratings we’ve had in ten years. It’s emerging as the biggest hit of the new fall season on U.S. television and we’ve already ordered a full season after only two weeks. I’m excited by the interconnected world and optimistic about things old and new in our business. People love television.
Linear story-telling is not a thing of the past. The technological battle is now around the TV set, not the computer screen. Mobile devices and tablets are new versions of the home entertainment center with our product out front. TV remains the best advertising delivery mechanism in history. The vast majority of chatter in the social sites revolves around our product. Consumers appear to be adding video consumption platforms– not replacing them– and media multi-tasking is part of the equation.
I can’t predict the future… but this much I can tell you for sure: human beings want to be moved, they want to feel, they want to be surprised and excited, they want to escape and they want to laugh… that’s why television thrives.
If we are curious and break some rules and encourage the human desire to gravitate to original ideas, TV will truly thrive.