Monday, February 16, 2009

Scott Adams TwoFold Test for Public Radio

Okay, Adams isn't really talking about public radio in his excellent blog post today. But the lessons from it can certainly be applied to public radio. Granted, public radio is often far more generous (than commercial media) in "giving time" to shows to let them find an audience and succeed. But I also think that a lot of pubradio shows use that as an excuse to continue bad practices. Think about Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me's wild success today. A lot of people forget that for years the show was entirely produced in the studio, and usually the panelists were scattered across the country. Despite the smart concept, clever writing, and generally excellent staffing choices...the show kinda sucked. The structure worked against having humor, instead of for it. But add that live audience and make so the panelists/comedians can play off the audience, and each other, and you have the hit show WWDTM is today.

On the other hand, execution is important. Fair Game with Faith Salie passed the "Two-Fold Test" brilliantly: it was The Daily Show for public radio. You say that, and immediately people start wondering exactly how that idea would work, so they ask questions. Bingo, you're golden. Unfortunately, I don't think Fair Game ever came close to matching TDS at having rapier-sharp wit while still being incredibly funny. To be fair, it's tough to match some of the best comedy writers in the country...but I think Fair Game also tried too hard to be "a public radio show" in that there wasn't a live audience, and they mixed in too much music and banter to fill up an hour.

Still, I'm willing to wager that a major reason Fair Game got greenlit and got at least some affiliates was precisely because it passed the "Two-Fold Test" so well. That's important, because another crucial aspect here, in part because pubradio is more generous in "giving time", is that there's precious little room on most stations' broadcast schedules for any new your show needs to succeed at the "Two-Fold Test" if you're ever going to convince a Program Director to give you a shot. If you can't explain your show in one sentence and immediately pique his/her interest, you're doomed.

And yes, that might just mean that your show concept simply isn't going to work.

Below is the blog post in its entirety. If you want the comments, too, check out the permalink.

Feb 13, 2009 General Nonsense |

The common notion about entertainment is that the better the quality, the bigger the audience. There's some truth to that. But what I find more interesting is that it works the other way too: You need popularity before you have the luxury of developing quality.

There are plenty of examples of popularity creating quality. The first season of The Simpsons, for example, was awful in terms of quality. The writing and animation were primitive. The voice actors hadn't found their groove yet. But because it was so different - an adult cartoon with an edge - it gained an immediate huge audience, mostly from curiosity and buzz. This audience allowed them to stay on the air, develop their show through practice, and hire highly talented writers. Within a few seasons The Simpsons became arguably one of the best TV shows ever aired.

The TV show Friends had a similar path. The first few episodes were awful in terms of writing and acting. But because the actors had charisma, and the concept of young, single friends was appealing, the ratings were immediately high and the cast and creators had time and money to develop it into a phenomenon. Quality followed popularity.

Dilbert was a bit like that too. The first few years of Dilbert were so poorly drawn and written it seems a miracle it found a home in any newspapers at all. But there was something different about it, and people saw just enough potential that I was given the luxury of years to learn how to draw (better) and learn how to write for my audience.

You can see this phenomenon work the other way too. Lately I've been watching on a cancelled TV series called Firefly. The show is part science fiction, part western, part action, part comedy. That makes it nearly impossible to explain, and evidently harder to market. When it originally aired on TV, I never saw a commercial for it or a mention of it. Yet in my opinion it was one of the best TV shows aired, and that was its first season right out of the gate. Quality wasn't enough to find a mass audience. It needed the curiosity factor, or some other appeal to get an audience.

Entertainment gets a chance to find an audience only if the concept is so simple it can be understood in a few words. Examples:

Friends: It's about some young, single friends

The Simpsons: cartoon about a dysfunctional family

Dilbert: Comic about a nerd and his dog

Garfield: About a cat

When you find an exception to the simplicity rule, it often proves the point. For example, Seinfeld was famously "about nothing." That should have been a recipe for failure, and indeed it had poor ratings for the first few dozen shows. I forget the details, but somehow it ran below the radar at the network because it was financed or produced in a different division than usual. That difference allowed it to stay on the air and develop quality, and an audience, while other shows with low ratings came and went.

So here is the key learning. If you are planning to create some business or other form of entertainment, you will need quality at some point to succeed. But what is more important than quality in the beginning is some intangible element that makes your project inherently interesting before anyone has even sampled it. That initial audience will give you the luxury of time to create quality.

I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality:

1. You must be able to describe it in a few words.

2. When people hear about it, they ask questions.

I saw this at work with my restaurant. We recently started what we call after hours dancing. (See how easily explained it is?) And as soon as we started talking about the idea, everyone had lots of questions. Was it live music or a DJ? What kind of music? What time does it end? Is there a cover charge? And so on. Rarely did anyone say, "That's nice. Good luck with it." Something about the idea makes people curious. And sure enough, it has been a solid success with no advertising, just word of mouth. And this immediate audience has allowed us to improve on it every week. Quality followed popularity.

No comments: