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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 Hulu.com 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.

 
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Mar 15, 2009
So, Firefly tanked because it can't be summed up easily? How about "Firefly: Space cowboys"? See, that was easy. It tanked because Fox never gave it a chance.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Mar 3, 2009
as the kids say "Firefly Rkx".... actually, the kids never said that.... if they had said that they might not have cut it from TV...

Peter: Everybody I've got bad news. We've been cancelled.
Lois: Oh no Peter! How could they do that?
Peter: Well unfortuantely Lois, there's just no more room on the schedule. We just gotta accept the fact that FOX has to make room for terrific shows like Dark Angel, Titus, Undeclared, Action, That 80's Show, Wonder Falls, Fast Lane, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, Skin, Girl's Club, Cracking Up, The Pitts, Firefly, Get Real, Freaky Links, Wanda At Large, Costello, The Lone Gunman, A Minute with Stan Hooper, Normal Ohio, Pasadena, Harsh Realm, Keen Eddy, The Street, American Embassy, Cedric The Entertainer, The Tick, Louie, And Greg The Bunny....
Lois: Is there no hope?
Peter: Well I suppose if ALL those shows go down the tubes we might have a shot.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 21, 2009
If this is true, then why is the first season of a show almost always the best? And conversely, why are the most popular shows ("reality" tv fare such as Survivor, American Idol, and so on) so thoroughly void of quality?
 
 
Feb 18, 2009
In my opinion, the only description Firefly ever needed was/is "Great Science Fiction" (any great story of any genre will likely have additional elements that aren't necessarily inherent to the primary genre) . I think the network's mistake (or Joss Whedon's mistake) was highlighting early-on that it was a Joss Whedon project ; this likely had the effect of instantly turning away potential Firefly fans who weren't fans of Buffy or Angel, and possibly also turning away Buffy and Angel fans who were hoping for more, well, Buffy or Angel. As wonderful and creative as Joss is, by that point in time he had been (unfairly) pigeonholed by viewers into the "teen/vampire" category.
 
 
Feb 18, 2009
I'm not familiar with any of this. I can't stand television, except for Seinfeld, which I love.
 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 18, 2009
Firefly was a GREAT show. I loved the whole western angle. But then half the shows I love are cancelled and the really stupid ones survive. I hated Seinfeld, Friends, Desperate Housewives after the first season, and Prison Break after the first season. I've never managed to sit through an Idols or a Survivor, or pretty much any reality show.

It's difficult to be different when the media goes only for mass appeal. I am really hoping they get the niche internet TV up and running some day.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2009
Scott,

This isn't on the topic of your blog entry, but I think you'll like this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo_24_qTNac (part 1/3) No Arms, No Legs, No Worries!

It's a limbless motivational speaker.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2009
Scott,

This isn't on the topic of your blog entry, but I think you'll like this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo_24_qTNac (part 1/3) No Arms, No Legs, No Worries!

It's a limbless motivational speaker.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 17, 2009
I'm glad you mentioned Firefly, and someone else brought up Brisco County. Two excellent shows that Fox never gave a chance. Once upon a time Fox had cojones to stick it out with quality shows. But now they've fallen into the quick return mentality that has dragged the other networks into gutter trash. I doubt X-files would have lasted more than a season if it came out today. I would also bet the Simpsons would have lasted. Both, I believe, suffered in the ratings early on. Jericho, on NBC, was another that got cut because of the networks' spineless, bottom-line, greed.

But if you haven't seen enough Firefly, then at least you can get a couple good hours more. Rent the movie Serenity.
 
 
Feb 17, 2009
i can't believe you summarized your own cartoon wrong, its about "office life", thats where the appeal is
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 16, 2009
If quality does indeed follow poularity, why are Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler still so unfunny? Or is it just that sometimes the quality follows WAY TOO LATE?

This is the same sort of point being raised by bloodboiler (but I like wrestling, because it's so bad it's funny - and because there are morons who still believe in it.)
 
 
Feb 16, 2009
I've found the same to be true with Firefly. Everyone I know who's seen it has loved it but it's impossible to get anyone interested by explaining it.
Also, buy the DVDs, mooch.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 16, 2009
Seinfeld survived its first season beacause, while it had poor ratings overall, it had excellent ratings with males in their mid-twenties, which is an important and hard to hit market share.
 
 
Feb 16, 2009
Here are a couple of examples of other shows that were canceled dispite being great shows:
1) The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. - starring Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead trilogy. It falls into the same category as Firefly in that it was a little sci fi, a little action, all set during the "wild west" period. It was a great show that only lasted one season.
2) Titus - a very short lived sitcom based on the life of Christopher Titus (he has a fairly successful stand up career). Excellent show but Fox canceled it.
3) Sifl and Olly - sure it was a show with sock puppets but it was proof that you didn't need a large operating budget to make a quality show. Unfortunately MTV canceled it after only two seasons in the late 90s and is still holding the rights to the show hostage so DVDs of the show may never be released.
 
 
Feb 16, 2009
Off topic - I'm pretty PO'ed at you, Scott - I just finished The Religion War, which is proof of intelligent design. You should warn prospective readers that it is an intentional mental virus. Yes, I know the warning would defeat the purpose, but you're still a dick for putting stupid rhymes in my head, forever attaching them to thoughts about God, and permanantly compromising the sublime pleasure of passing gas.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2009
I had never heard of Firefly while it was on Fox but one day while I was doing a home improvement project I turned on the SciFi channel. They were doing a marathon of Firefly and I watched the entire day. I was so thrilled to find this new show and wanted to find out everything about it. Sadly I found out it had been canceled before I ever knew about it. I bought the DVD and the movie when it came out and everyone in my family borrowed it and loved it. I am in my 60's and the family is from 10 to 50 and all ages thought it was great.

I have to admit that it is very hard to describe this show to people in a way that makes them want to watch it but once they do, they are hooked. I can pretty well tell that if I really like a show it won't be on for long. I have over 800 channels on my cable and today I couldn't find one thing that I cared to watch. Why is my taste so different from the people that put on these shows?
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2009
Firefiy was one of my favorite series. Too bad the network aired the originals out of order and screwed up their marketing.

But, Josh learned from that. Notice how better marketed his other shows are?
 
 
Feb 14, 2009
Radiohead is a great example of quality following popularity. Their first album 'Pablo Honey' was rubbish. They were on the verge of breaking up until one song on the album - 'Creep' - about a self loathing outsider (a concept understood in a few words) became a huge international hit. The success of the song enabled them to continue as a band and go on to create such critically acclaimed masterpieces as 'The Bends' and 'OK Computer', helping to redefine rock music in the process. So without the initial popularity of one song, they would never have had the chance to go on to create such quality.
 
 
Feb 14, 2009
Hey, I think I found the voice of the pointy-haired boss. Check out the narrator in this story:
http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2009/02/12/dawson.mi.back.from.the.dead.wzzm

 
 
Feb 14, 2009
I think you've just changed the way I see entertainment shows. After reading this blog for years, I've actually registered to tell you that. Thanks.
 
 
 
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