x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

In the abundance of choice the first victim is mediocrity

As audiences browse through ever more choices, TV programmes must hook their viewers in the first few seconds, and then never relax their grip.

The movie business is smarter than the television business, because in the movie business they get their money before they let you see the movie.

If it were the other way around, or if you paid for only the part of the movie you actually wanted to watch, a lot of people in Hollywood would suddenly have big trouble paying their American Express bills.

In the television business, the viewer is always a few inches away from the big button on the remote, so every second on the screen has to be either funny or exciting or deeply riveting, because if it's not, the temptation is too great to resist.

It's a humbling thing, knowing that every viewer on every sofa can give you the hook - actually it's more like "give you the thumb" - and it's often what trips up younger writers. They like to think that their job is to take the viewers they have and entertain them, to serve the folks who are already there. But that's not quite accurate.

That may have been the way it was years ago, when there were a hundred million Americans watching television with only four or five networks to watch. That wasn't as perfect as a get-their-money-first business, but it was still awfully cushy.

Now all of us spend almost as much time scrolling through the grid as we do watching an actual show. Sometimes I'll flop down on the sofa, grab the remote, click though a dozen or so channels, scroll through the television channel guide and happily pass a half-hour or so not watching anything specific. I'm not watching television, I'm watching what I could watch on television. It's sort of like going to a restaurant just to read the menu.

So the smart way to think about it, at least from my experience, is to assume that you don't have any viewers at all. You have drop-ins and passers-by. The trick to succeeding in the television business - and life and romance, too, I think - is to spend some time figuring out how to turn a brief glance into a major commitment. How do you get the "scrollers" and the "clickers" to put the remote down and stay awhile?

"I just want to set up the world," writers often say about the first ten pages of a script. "I just want the audience to see the characters in their element, to get to know them."

But while these writers are setting up the world, there's a football match being shown, along with an old movie and a reality show in which overindulged women are clawing at each other. The audience is getting an itchy thumb.

"You don't need this stuff up front," is pretty much what every writer tells every other writer when asked for feedback on a script. "You don't need this stuff at the top of the show," or "You don't need this stuff at the top of the scene."

And every writer always says, "Yes I do. I need to set up the world." Or, as I heard one writer say: "This is like the appetiser part of the show. The main course is coming."

Today, though, the audience won't wait. They're hungry. They'll get up and go off to another restaurant.

This is true not just about storytelling or filmmaking or TV-show producing. This is true in any endeavour, I think, when you're trying to get people to do something, to pay attention to something, or just to sit still for a moment.

I have a friend in the venture capital business. Each day he sits in his glamorous, Zen-inspired office on Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto, California - the world's red-hot centre of technology start-ups - and he hears pitches from entrepreneurs trying to raise money for the Next Big Thing. They come armed with PowerPoint decks and visual aids and all sorts of explanatory devices, but all they really need to know is that what he wants to hear, first and up front, before anything else, is: how is this thing going to make us all rich?

Tell me that first, my friend says to the supplicants. But only a few really hear him.

It's a good rule to remember, if you're trying to win over an audience in any medium. Fun stuff first. Sweet stuff up front. Start passing out the treats the moment it starts.

At the top of the show (if you're a writer), or at the top of the proposal (if you're an entrepreneur pitching a new business) ask yourself: is the audience getting dessert first?

Because if they're not, someone, somewhere - probably another entrepreneur, or, worse, some other overindulged reality show housewife - is serving it up on another channel or another office.

Just a thumb push away.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood