Promo Workshop

The Trouble With Creativity

When people think about the entertainment industry, they tend to first think of movies, music, theatre; and then, somewhere down the list: television. And it's no wonder really. TV has become so ubiquitous, so commonplace, such a routine part of our daily lives.

But consider the sheer scale of the TV business and just how many people watch it. Think about how much the rest of the entertainment industry relies on TV for its very existence.

TV isn't the elephant in the room. TV is the room.

Given that TV is such a huge part of the entertainment industry, one might therefore expect that behind the scenes, the role of creativity would be firmly understood and appreciated; that the importance and value of creative people would be unimpeachable.

My experience has shown the opposite. Creativity is hopelessly and compromisingly misunderstood.

Worse, at the TV boardroom-level, the role of creativity and innovation to steer a company's fortunes is scarcely even reviewed. Creative people are rarely represented in management, and are often dismissed as flamboyant, theatrical, unpredictable and even dangerous.

Now sure, I’ve met people who think they’re creative; and assume the position by role-playing these stereotypes. And let's just say their actual, on-the-job effectiveness can vary wildly; and who knows, they might actually contribute to the misperception. But the problem goes deeper than just mere ignorance and prejudice on the part of TV management.

In many TV channels, 'creativity' is just another way of saying 'risky'.
From a businessperson’s view, the rationale goes like this:

Say you have $1 million to invest. Would you rather take a chance on making $4 million doing something creative (i.e: risky)? Or, would you rather make $1.5 million almost guaranteed by playing it safe?

This conservatism (read: ass-covering) is the first step to understanding how creativity has been sidelined, at least on the business side of the TV world.

There’s no need for creativity, when you can simply take the so-called 'safe option', and that is by copying the competition.

the culture of copying

All “new ideas” are built on, or inspired by existing ideas.
Copying is a fundamental part of creativity.

But there's good copying. And then, there's bad copying.

Take the Never Say No To Panda ads that have been doing the cyber rounds lately. Great stuff, right?

And then there’s the Boston Bruins Hockey Rules ads that pre-date them, which are pretty much the same concept.

Is Panda plagiarised? Only the copywriter can say for sure. For all I know they’re both a rip off of some other ad/TV show/movie. Given that we’re all mining the same creative coalface, it’s a wonder identical ideas don’t spring up more often. However if the copywriter thought: "Who the f#@k cares... this is Egypt, no one is ever going to know..." then that's bad copying.

The culture of copying is when bad copying becomes the standard operating system for a company. It's the paradigm of dispensing the need for creativity and creative people almost entirely, and replacing it all with the practice of simply relying on international outlets to be the source of any innovation.

If you have ever worked for a regional, affiliate, or even just a low-budget TV station, you’ll have experienced the culture of copying in practice. This is where an idea can’t be any good unless it’s been done before, and proven to have been successful for some other company, in some other (usually larger) market.

When I was making promos at one of Australia’s commercial TV channels, and the boss was briefing me and said:
I want you to "have a look" at what they are doing in the states…

Well, I soon came to realise that actually meant:
I want you to "copy exactly" what they are doing in the states.

When working as a consultant, I once pitched a rather large, game-changing idea to the local subscription TV platform. They said they loved it. But... wouldn’t implement it because Sky in the UK hadn’t done it. I’m not kidding. One employee even asked me: “Who do you think you are?”

The culture of copying is, in effect, a vote of no confidence in the local employees' abilities. But that’s not what it actually is, or how it came about. The culture of copying is something that has developed over many decades, and requires understanding a bit of sociology.

it's a smaller world after all

We take for granted just how connected the world has become. Sure, modern media has enabled us to know more about our planet. But it was the arrival of cheap international air travel that really brought the rest of the world so much closer to all of us.

It wasn’t so long ago that, say, a family would save for years and years to make a literal once-in-a-lifetime trip overseas. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that affordable international travel started to become a reality.

Up until this point, there were a select number of artists, commentators and business people who would travel overseas, soak up the prevailing trends and ideas; then find fame and/or fortune bringing them home to an unknowing local audience.

This was particularly true of advertising. And it was also prevalent in music and fashion. But it was television where copying was endemic.

Programming formats, promotion styles, graphics packages, logos, sponsorship systems, station IDs, taglines, theme tunes, the list goes on… they could all be purchased (or more often, stolen) wholesale, then brought back to the local monopolised TV region and implemented as “good as original” to the audience; safe in the knowledge that very, very few people (including those who worked at the station itself) would even realise that the material was a knock-off.

If a local, regional TV channel acquired enough programming from a big overseas TV channel, the big overseas TV channel would throw-in their on-air packaging for free. Why would a little fish "go the creative route" and risk all the time, trouble and expense of developing their own identity––that could very well flop––when they could get a market-tested, zillion dollar station package for nix? It makes perfect business sense, right?

Well, it did. Once. But not any longer.
How come? Because of the thing you’re looking at now.

that pesky internet

Firstly, the internet has allowed regular viewers to discover just how comprehensively unoriginal their local TV channel can be. And the viewers are frankly not impressed.

Marketing and media site Mumbrella ran a story on a recent example; and the mostly hilarious comments clearly sum up the mood; as well as pointing out even more examples.

But the internet has done more than expose this credibility ruining, brand demolishing, public relations disaster. It has also, through means both legal and otherwise, enabled a dizzyingly large (and ever-growing) number of disgruntled viewers to simply circumvent the local TV monopoly in their region, and view their favourite programming directly from the source provider.

The wanky buzzword for this is disintermediation, which simply means that viewers are cutting out the middleman. The important point to realise is, that in doing so, viewers are sewing the seeds of the globalisation of TV.

Cutting premiere seasons with repeat episodes, constantly switching timeslots, or dropping a show entirely halfway through a season––– these are just some of the ways TV channels motivate their viewers to go elsewhere.

Remember when you stopped buying books from your local store and started buying them at Amazon? Remember when you stopped buying CDs, and started downloading? That's what viewers are starting to do to their local TV channel.

Welcome, TV. You've just joined the raft of industries that are now on the so-called international playing field.

And just like all those other businesses, you will soon start suffering all sorts of pain as a result of being on it.

The retail industry is finding it harder and harder to compete with online shopping. Many stores report customers select which product they want at their shop, and then go home and buy it on the internet.

As advertising campaigns go global, regional advertising agencies are either shutting their doors, merging with rivals, or shrinking to a fraction of their former size. You may have loved the Old Spice commercial, but I guarantee you, your local ad agency account execs were fully pissed about it.

Local TV stations are being forced to make all kinds of changes; like “fast tracking” their programming. Eventually they will have to play it on the same day as the original broadcast or simply lose out.

Fast-tracking will see a large reduction in the size of regional promo departments; as local channels will be forced to use the distributor’s promotion, as they won't have time to turn their own around.

However, for a local channel to accept the programming, promos, and identity of the source supplier is only telegraphing to the audience that the channel is merely an affiliate, something that is not the real deal; and therefore invites viewers to track down the originating programme creator or distributor. That, or search the torrent sites--- which on a business level is the worst outcome for everybody.

surviving the global market

So if the little fish have to swim with the big fish, then sooner or later, an important change has to happen. The local TV channels will have to develop their own, unique brands, and start generating more of their own unique content... for a global audience.

Just as every radio station in the world is now accessible via the internet, soon enough, that’s the way it’s going to be with TV too.

As more companies adapt, the more their business models will start to rely on the income from the international market, the more the whole thing will accelerate... eventually making the globalisation of TV complete.

To survive, local TV channels are going to have to become creators of their own content. This content will still need to be relevant to the local audience, but as it will be netcast to the entire world, it will also have to be unique and original to a global audience.

And this won't just be for programming. All those things that TV management used to steal from other channels will also need to be unique and original too.

Including, and especially, promos.

I'm not saying that promos as we know them will cease to exist. But they will need, more than ever, to become part of the entertainment, not an interruption to it.

The point I really want to make is that the universe of promos is now contracting rapidly... if you haven't already noticed... and if you're wondering where all the money is going, the answer is: content creation.

The future of TV promos––and the opportunity––is to be part of the blossoming industry of content creation.

Creativity is going to have to be properly defined and understood by the business... and quick, because there’s no business in the culture of copying anymore.

Thankfully, the redefining will be easy. Content creation will require creativity… it’s right there in its own name.

Meaning the days of dismissing creatives are over.

Before you shoot the messenger here, remember I’m only recounting my impressions of sitting-in on board and management meetings at places I've worked. And whilst that's been quite a few places, I fully appreciate there must be management teams out there that get it right. If this is the place you work, then stay there.

It's just that in each and every high-level management meeting I've attended, it's the Sales Department that receives almost full attention; perhaps the final proof that the business is more interested in its advertising clients than its viewers.

more ranting...

Check out this excellent article at Slate Magazine.


Charley Holland is a content creator with 30 years experience in the TV industry. He is reasonably underwhelmed by social media, which is why you can find him on Facebook; LinkedIn; Twitter; Google+

©2013 The Charley Holland Agency