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 13, 2009
Once in a great, GREAT while, your usual sophistry gives way to a true jem of insight. This is one of those times. Thanks for sharing this - I'll take it to heart.
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Feb 13, 2009
I find it fascinating how many people are still finding and enjoying Firefly even now....5-6 years after the original airing (and subsequent cancellation) of the series. Makes it even more of a shame that Fox didn't bother to take the time to air the show as Whedon intended to give it a real shot of pulling in and retaining viewers.

Hopefully all parties involved have learned how to handle each other and Dollhouse won't suffer the same fate!
Feb 13, 2009
I'd describe Firefly as:

Sci-fi western

Sounds a little silly, yet it sounds more interesting (to me, anyway) than any of the other simple examples you cited, Scott (just on simple explanation alone). "It's a comic about a cat" isn't enough to get me asking questions. Perhaps, though, this is due to cultural context - Garfield was the first of its ilk to achieve wide success (to my knowledge), and now lacks that spark, whereas the concept of "sci-fi western" would sound gimmicky.

Frankly, all of this strikes me as overly speculative. The word-of-mouth summary is very important in success, but it doesn't seem like the key in this particular example. I'd like to know more about how those other shows were marketed, for instance. The "quality following popularity" idea is an interesting one though, and inspiring.
Feb 13, 2009
Firefly wasn't popular at first because FOX did everything in their power to screw it up. They gave it zero advertising, they aired the episodes out of order, in a terrible time slot, and kept preempting it. From what I heard, the manager responsible was trying to make his predecessor (who got the show in the first place) look bad by making the show fail. If FOX had simply advertised it and gave it a predictable, good time slot, it would have been a huge hit.
Feb 13, 2009
Musical acts don't quite fit into your mold (ie you can't really explain them as easily as the plotline to a television show) but I think the formula still fits. The best example I can think of is the Beatles ; when they started out, they were just a boy band singing covers of popular songs, getting by on their looks and charisma. With that popularity they gained success and matured into an actually good band, producing some of the greatest songs of their generation. But it's doubtful they ever would have gotten to write Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road if they hadn't had their early success that was really for a whole different reason.
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Feb 13, 2009
Firefly: "An old-west show set in space."

Firefly got screwed over by Fox--they never showed the first episode on TV at all, aired the rest of the episodes out-of-order, and switched the night the show was on too often for anyone to actually figure out when it was on even if they WERE interested in it.
Feb 13, 2009
Firefly rocks!
Feb 13, 2009
I agree that the show Firefly was an interesting show, and it is unfortunate that it was not able to grow. The movie, Serenity, was very well done, and if you haven't seen it, you should watch it when you have finished watching the DVDs of the TV show.
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Feb 13, 2009
There was an episode of Friends that wasn't awful? Guess I must have been out that night!
Feb 13, 2009
I think your idea of "Quality" is out of context for the entertainment industry,

In the case of your examples, that "Quality" was in the scripting, and that quality was clear in spite of the poor acting or cartooning (Friends and the Simpsons),

What these products gained with the injection of money was Polish and additional quality in non-essential areas (most folks will put up with a poorly finished film or computer game if the fundamental scripting and concepts are excellent),

Popularity certainly does not generate quality - quite the opposite in many cases as the opportunity of milking any product dry is extreme in modern capitalist societies, resulting in strained acting and poor script-writing as the script-writers burn out or run out of ideas for new and fresh scripts,
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