Marginalia: “It’s the Creative, Stupid”

And the audience has spoken: they want stories. They’re dying for them. They are rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages, silly gifs and god knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there. Shinier and juicier than it has ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don’t reach out and seize it.

A few days ago, Kevin Spacey, the actor, director, producer, delivered the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Of course, as a great actor, he delivered the lines perfectly, with the right passion, humor and calls to action. However, his words were his own and, having been the Artistic Director of The Old Vic Theater in England for some 10 years, he knows plenty about the business side of things to speak from experience.

His main theme was about how the television industry needs to wake up to the reality of how technology and audience tastes for how they consume stories are both evolving and how other forms of media are becoming more relevant. Of course, he was referring to the growing trends of cord-cutting with respect to traditional TV and switching to streaming sites online (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, etc.). And, those in the Tech industry will be familiar with the 11-page manifesto, the Long-term View, that Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, released earlier this year that speaks to this in greater detail. Worth a read. Even Spielberg and Lucas weighed in rather apocalyptically on this a month or so ago.

The warp-speed of technological advancement – the Internet, streaming, multi-platforming – happens to have coincided with the recognition of TV as an art form. So you have this incredible confluence of a medium coming into its own JUST AS the technology for that medium is drastically shifting. Studios and networks who ignore either shift – whether the increasing sophistication of story telling, or the constantly shifting sands of technological advancement – will be left behind. And if they fail to hear these warnings, audiences will evolve faster than they will. They will seek the stories and content-providers who give them what they demand – complex, smart stories available whenever they want, on whatever device they want, wherever they want.

For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span? When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera. We can make NO ASSUMPTIONS about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt, and TRY NEW THINGS to discover appetites we didn’t know were there. The more we try new things, the more we will learn about our viewership, the more doors will open both creatively and from a business perspective.

We all still crave shared experiences. But these days the water cooler moment (where people gathered at work to talk about what they’d seen on TV the night before) has vanished. We no longer live in a world of appointment viewing. So the water cooler has gone virtual, because the discussion is now online. And it’s a sophisticated, no-spoilers generation; and because of that we need never be alone with our Breaking Bad habit or our crazy obsession with Dexter. And stories are the great leveler – capable of crossing borders to unite audiences. And when there is so much conflict in our world as countries go to war, with all that pulls us apart – it is culture that unites us.

He also spoke about how today’s storytelling talent needs to be viewed and nurtured differently. While this is something every generation and every discipline is challenged with, the arts disciplines have always faced the greatest losses of talent undiscovered.

I want to encourage the best of the storytellers coming up in this industry; because I believe in ‘sending the elevator back down’, Jack Lemmon’s philosophy he handed down to me, is a great way we can all use success to benefit others.

I believe culture is not a luxury item, it is a necessity. Storytelling helps us understand each other, translate the issues of our times and the tools of theater and film can be powerful in helping young people to develop communication/collaboration skills, let alone improving their own confidence. But for those who do have a passion for the arts and have a voice – I believe that we have a responsibility to seek them out, because if we don’t they may never find their way over the walls we’ve built so effectively around our theaters, networks and studios and we may lose their stories forever.

But the new generation of creatives is different. We are no longer operating in a world where someone has to decide if they are an actor, director, producer or writer – these days kids growing up on YouTube can be all these things; We have to persuade them that there is a home for them in the mainstream. But we also have to make space for those single-minded geniuses that just have it all together, and all they need is a door to be opened – the Lena Dunhams of our world.

We can all send the elevator back down. We just have to make sure the floors we live on are not so high that we can no longer hear the voices of those who want to get on and take a ride up to our level – calling out for opportunity. Wherever they want to go in this new world – television and the Internet surely cannot afford to lose them all.

His call to action was the need to be more innovative (presumably, both in the storytelling as well as the advancing technologies) and less focused on ratings and profits. Easier said than done, yes. But, a message that cannot be repeated too often.

We need to be that innovative. In some ways we need to be better than the audience. We need to surprise, break boundaries and take viewers to new places. We need to give them better quality. We might not disrupt the status quo overnight, but we can mould structures at the center of our businesses; because if we really put talent at the heart of everything we do, we might just be able to have greater highs across a broader spectrum of the industry. That’s what I believe.

It takes every artistic medium a number of decades to find it’s footing and be recognized as a legitimate art form. Novels were not taken seriously at first because they were not poetry. Photography was seen as inferior to painting for its first 50 years. It took decades for film to graduate from cheap nickelodeon entertainment for the masses to something considered to be a fine art (Buster Keaton is now seen as a genius, but at the time, was a vaudevillian clown in the flickers).

It is a good lecture and deserved the standing ovation at the end. Where the TV industry evolves to next will be very interesting. Most particularly, how new and fresh talent (not necessarily young, as Spacey rightly points out) will come to the fore.

Sources: Watch the entire video. Or, read the full transcript.

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