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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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Feb 14, 2009
You are confusing popularity and quality and oversimplifying both.

There is plenty of absolute crap that is insanely popular because it is simple enough for morons (e.g., Wrestling, !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ there is plenty of insanely complex popular things of varying quality that are popular because of the complexity (e.g., Lost, Battlestar Galactica, X-Files, computer games)..
 
 
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Feb 14, 2009
I agree with the people who are pointing out 'exposure' as a necessary quality. Exposure is advertising consistent, convenient availability.

If you're an unknown show on a Friday night, or up against American Idol or some other similarly popular program, you're kind of screwed from the get-go. I've seen a lot of my favorite series get kicked around or canceled because of this: Scrubs (which has lasted) and NewsRadio (which didn't). "Heroes" is probably next on the chopping block due to a combination of deteriorating writing plus being scheduled against "24."

Another very helpful quality, I think, is an engaging, long-term story arc with lots of unanswered questions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Heroes (early on) all did this well. Friends had the back and forth of Ross and Rachel for the first 4 seasons. Cheers had Sam and Diane, Night Court had Harry and Christine, Stargate SG-1 had the Gou'ald. I also was a big fan of "The Pretender," despite its weird cheesy/dramatic schizophrenia. That show, too, had several ongoing story arcs, involving mysterious villains ("The Centre"). Even a cheesy show like "Monk," which is mostly stand-alone episodes, has an ongoing arc where the main character can solve every case except his wife's murder. You can probably have bottle episodes, but you HAVE to break up the monotony with something interesting every once in a while (e.g., Sam going home and Al being trapped in the past in one episode of "Quantum Leap").

Finally, I think your show has to make some sort of consistent sense, or people get frustrated and give up. This plagued Quantum Leap (did Sam's mind or body leap?) and is currently wrecking Heroes (Sylar's evil! He's dead! He's alive! He's good! He's evil! He's misunderstood!). It's also brought some rot to "24" at times (This evil bearded white guy on a boat is in charge! No, wait, this OTHER bearded evil white guy on a boat is in charge! No, wait, yet ANOTHER...) - the last season of Angel and the last season and a half of Buffy suffered from this as well. Granted, each had a good solid finale before that, and were unexpectedly renewed, but still.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
This holds true even for Arrested Development - perhaps one of the best shows on TV. Had to be taken off because of low ratings. Ran for just 3 seasons.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
I'd take your formula a step further. You said it needs to be easily explainable, but raise questions. That sounds like it should be "familiar, but with a novel twist". For example, there's plenty of cartoons about family life, but the simpsons gave it the twist of being edgy. And your "after hours dancing" offers something routine- dancing- but with the twist of being "after hours" (which i guess just means it goes late??? what does that mean anyway?) The hard part i suppose is finding a twist that can be summarized in a few words, but still seem novel to most people. Most of them have already been taken.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
Dollhouse is debuting on Friday night. I guess it's doomed.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
I think a major variable that has been alluded to but not named is exposure. It doesn't matter how good something is if no one sees it. I also agree that something truly original scares networks. If they can't pigeon hole it they don't want it. That is why so many shows are just poor clones of something done on another network and often originally in another country.

A great example of that is the show Coupling from England. It is one of the funniest shows I have ever seen. NBC tried it hear with the same script and even some actors that looked similar to the English version... NOT funny in the least. It was canceled after the pilot. They billed it as the new Friends mixed with Seinfeld but I think it (the English version) was far superior to both.

Another GREAT show that was canceled after one season on HBO was John From Cincinnati. If you get a chance to see it, go for it.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
Scott, you might have anticipated the correlation between people who read your blog AND love firefly.

"Space Western" works but "'Maverick' in Space" works better.

And now my favorite quote:

MAL: "Mercy is the mark of a great man. (barely stabs defeated dueling opponent)
Guess I'm just a good man. (another little stab)
Well, I'm all right."
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
Scott - don't your two rules also apply to newspaper headlines?
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
The Beatles had to do "Meet the Beatles" and that whole "Twist and Shout", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" thing before they could write their great songs. Beethoven had to write "Wellington's Victory" before he could get his symphonies listened to.

I think the mechanism is different than Scott is implying. The artist may have quality already, from the start; but quality doesn't just not attract an audience, it actively repels an audience, because it implies being different. Familiarity attracts an audience. The canny artist, once established, can then pull a bait-and-switch and give their mass audience quality instead.
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the same way. I got a copy of their first season on Minneapolis public TV. It was very bad. So bad, it was painful and boring to watch. They had a simple concept: Making fun of bad movies. Comedy Central took a shot and put it on. They quickly put Comedy Central on the map between old stand up routines and Monty Python re-runs. It made people ask questions: I do that anyway, and how could they be funnier than me? What is up with the robot puppets? Why is there someone evil on the show making him watch movies? How does he eat and breath on the Satellite of Love? (Repeat to yourself: "It's just a show. I should really just relax.")
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
about Firefly- the few episodes and movie were enough to amass a huge following of fans and now every year a foundation of extra-enthusiastic fans holds a "Can't stop the Serenity" charity event where you can go see the movie at a theater near you for $25 and proceeds are donated by the org to Joss Whedon's favorite charity.

Furthermore, Firefly suffered from other snags that you probably didn't know about- it was on Fox, and Fox purposely ran the episodes out of order- and not when they were on re-run, but the first time they ever aired. Fox also scheduled the show for Friday evenings, aka "The Friday Night Death Slot", which refers to the high likelihood of shows aired on Friday night getting canceled.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
Dollhouse starts tonight, so if you are sorry you missed Firefly, be sure to watch.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
People are right that Fox screwed over Firefly, but there's a reason that goes deeper than that. If you watch the extras on the DVD release, you hear a lot of inside stories for Joss about his battles with the Fox executives.

For example, he insisted on filming with 35mm, and deliberately had scenes with the primary characters on the far edges of the screen, to force Fox to air the show in widescreen against their wishes. In another case, the Fox executives were insisting on 'larger than life' villains, so he created one that was super over the top, and killed him off right away (turned out as a great scene IMO.)

While you could argue that these were good artistic decisions, I think it's fair to say they pissed of the Fox executives. When people are putting up a bunch of money to get something done, they don't generally appreciate all that passive aggressive nonsense. And so, when they go to make out the schedules, you may find yourself low on the priority list of shows to be given consideration.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
Interesting. Can you explain why holiday episodes always suck?
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
What you're describing sounds a little bit like a "unique selling point", that is something about your company/product which is special and remarkable and good. Describing Firefly as "cowboys in space" isn't really helpful as that sounds like a sucky USP, describing it as "The reinterpretation of the aftermath of the American Civil war in a future where the US and China are the sole surviving cultures" is possibly less sucky, but maybe that's just me.

I think Battlestar Galactica series 1 and possibly 2 (haven't seen 3 yet) is quality writing that rivals Firefly. Essentially the reason why people like something is story, if you don't have a story then they'll watch it, but they won't remember it, c.f. Hellboy vs Hellboy 2.
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
While I agree with your concept I take issue with one of your examples - The Simpsons. While the animation on the early Simpsons episodes was nowhere near the quality they have now the writing was excellent and much more nuanced in the first couple of seasons than it later became. In the first season in particular Homer's character actually had depth to it. He wasn't just a self-centered, stereotypical sitcom husband and father like he is now. He was very sympathetic - just a guy without a clue trying his best. These days Homer is despicable to the point where I've basically stopped watching the show because I no longer find his jerkishness funny at all. Likewise for Bart, who was easily identifiable as very close to a real underachieving kid, like the ones we all knew in school (and some of us have as children). Now he's just a jerk. So I'd argue that the quality of the writing on the Simpsons has actually deteriorated substantially over time while the superficial bits - the animation - have gotten more sophisticated.

But, like I said, your general concept is right on. There's a segment in the film about the Who, "The Kids Are Alright" where Pete Townshend is being interviewed for some UK TV show and he is quoted by one reporter as saying "if you steer clear of quality you'll have success." The reporter then asks him if he doesn't think the Beatles have a lot of quality in their music and Pete says "Ooh, that's a tough one. The other day John and I were listening to one of those Beatles records where the music is all mixed into the left speaker and the singing is all on the right and we discovered that when you turn the balance knob on the stereo so you can only hear the music you find out they can't play, and when you turn it so you can only hear the singing you find out they can't sing either." So there you go. The Beatles - popularity before quality. And they had the simple sales pitch down too - 4 good looking, well-dressed young men from Liverpool who play rock and roll.
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
I never saw Firefly on regular TV (I live in Belgium - not sure if it was aired here), but after I'd watched (and completely not understood) Serenity, I gave it a shot and bought the Firefly DVD series. I was glued to my TV set for days, watching episodes back to back, until I got through them all. Then I watched Serenity again, and (obviously) it now made sense (although I was pretty sad at some points). What a waste to cancel such a great show. It ranks up there as (for me) one of the very best things (single programme, series, or movie) that I have ever seen.

What did it have? Good writing, good stories, good chemistry between the actors, good effects, good feeling of being in a real world - in as much as the heroes were not squeaky clean, but had some interesting dark sides. If it had been advertised just a little, I'm sure we'd now be watching the seventh (or so) series.
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
If you like Firefly, check out Cowboy Bebop
 
 
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Feb 13, 2009
Your formula of intro-feedback-revise-feedback-create-feedback-deliver-feedback-improve-feedback-intro...is textbook marketing 101 (ok, maybe 201), but the timeless truth behind it is on the money. The internet, cell phones, iPods, coffee makers, vacations, Google, etc. etc. all share the very same formula. Damn Scott, you coulda/shoulda started your own consulting group with this jewel! Love ya, mean it!
 
 
Feb 13, 2009
I so miss firefly. Serrenity was not enough. It was sad that fox didnt let it go for another season or two. I think it would still be on the air today if they had only given it another season.......
 
 
 
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