Thursday, May 23, 2013
Just a couple of weeks after my previous post on American Idol's problems I am gratified to see Fox agrees with some of my suggestions on how to fix the program. Rumors are flying that none four judges or the executive producer will be back next year. Randy Jackson, the only judge left from the first season, has already left -- he announced he will concentrate on his music company and "other opportunities." Ratings for the final last Thursday hit an all time low for the final,down 34% from last year. The show did win the night, despite coming in second for the half our of a new episode of The Big Bang Theory. During my network career, I've been in a lot of meetings where we discussed what to do with hit shows that dropped in the ratings. American Idol is down tremendously in the ratings, but it's still winning it's night and is one of the top rated shows in broadcast. I'm not surprised that Fox is trying something radical to save the show. But should they? Yes, they should. You can call this Peter's Programming Rule #1 -- don't drop a show from your schedule unless you're sure you'll replace it with a higher rated show. It's not likely Fox can find a show that will do better than Idol. They have to save it. The first decision they have to make is whether they think the right changes to judges and formats will improve ratings, or if they have to cut costs (get cheaper judges) and do their best to hold on to the current audience. Kevin Reilly, the head of Fox Entertainment, made some comments that shows he's thinking along the right lines: everything's on the table, and the focus of next season needs to be on the contestants. Fox has learned that paying big name judges $18 million per year for a part-time job -- what they reportedly pay Mariah Carey, doesn't result in higher ratings. I stand by my earlier suggestions. I think the show's moment has passed, but there's enough life to justify an announced "Last Season." Make the judges all former American Idol contestants, and bring back everyone who was ever a judge or a popular contestant for some role during the year -- I'm talking about you Justin, Clay Aiken, and bikini girl. Maybe pit some of the old favorites who didn't win and don't have recording contracts against some new talent. If this works, and the ratings increase, Fox can always say that audience demand requires another season anyway. Think about how you would bring the audience back to American Idol. Can you use any of those techniques in the shows, videos, and stories you create?
Saturday, May 4, 2013
In the traditional media world, the answer is yes. An agent can open doors that you can't open yourself. Tom Cruise has one. So does Harrison Ford, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison. Stephen King has one. Almost all successful authors have literary agents, and speakers have booking agents. If you have success as a novelist, playwright, actor, director, and even producer or on-air talent, and deal regularly with big media companies, you should have an agent. Licensed agents recognized by major media companies bring you credibility that you can't get any other way. Agents know things -- they know which director needs to work, and which publishers are looking to get into the teen paranormal business, for example. It's a fact that most media companies won't look at material that's not represented, whether by an agent or a production company. If you're not represented and they do decide to review your idea, the company will make you sign a release that prevents you from suing them if they create a show with a similar idea. Agents are important. But agents don't get you work. They get you meetings and the opportunity to sell yourself. Then after you get the job, they make the deal for you. For this service, agents generally get a 10% commission on your earnings. An agent that works hard for you -- sets up lots of meetings, negotiates deals, gets you auditions -- is absolutely worth the money. But what about when you're starting out? Do you need an agent then? Even when you're starting out an agent can help you. But you might have trouble finding one. Because agents are paid on commission they want to make sure their clients can get work before they add a client to their roster. Therefore, the best way to get an agent is to show them your talent. If you're an author, send them your book. If you're an actor, get them to see you in something. Show them a video of your speaking. Put your work on youtube and send them a link. One way or another, get known -- at least a little bit. This will not be easy. It's likely your work will be rejected a lot at the start. But if you don't want to be rejected every day, pick another line of work. As I wrote in an earlier post, even if you have a best seller or a hit film, not everyone will like it. One important point -- do not pay an agent to make appointments for you. If anyone asks you for money before they send you to a meeting, walk away and find another agent. As always, before you sign any contract with anyone -- producer, agent, media company, etc, -- get that contract reviewed by a lawyer that represents your interests. I'll be writing in future posts with more details about how to get agents and the difference between an agent an a manager.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Last week the American Idol live results show finished second in the ratings to reruns of the Big Bang Theory. This week reports swirled around the internet that show producers considered replacing Mariah Carey in the middle of the season with Jennifer Lopez. Is American Idol getting that desperate? And what does this mean for next year? Finally, what can we as content creators learn from this? The answer to the first question is "Yes." They are getting desperate, but you can't blame them. Ratings are down significantly from last year (although the show usually wins its time slot) despite spending $18 million on Mariah Carey along with more millions on Nicky Minaj, Keith Urban, and Randy Jackson. The show that used to bring in torrents of money for Fox may only be bringing in a trickle. They've tweaked show formats, brought in big stars and still viewership is down. The producers may have forgotten the most important factor in American Idol's previous success -- it's about the contestants, not the judges. Paying Mariah Carey $18 million got the show some off season press, but not a ratings boost. That's because the audience doesn't tune in to see the judges, they tune in because they care about the contestants. We don't remember a lot about what Simon, Paula, and Randy said about the contestants, but we do remember rooting for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, and even Katherine McPhee and Taylor Hicks. The judges' most important job is to pick a final group that viewers can care about and makes compelling television. That's where this year's group of judges (with help from the producers)failed. They were so worried about repeating past mistakes that they didn't focus on the best candidates for the present. If the present low ratings continue, we may be looking at the last year of American Idol. If I was running Fox, I wouldn't cancel the show. I think the best way to salvage the ratings next year is to announce that next year is the last year of American Idol -- that will bring to auditions everyone in the U.S. who thought about auditioning but didn't. The contestant pool (and potential star power) will be deep. I'd also use guest judges every show -- bring back Simon and Paula, of course, but also Ellen, Karla, Steven and J Lo. Let's see William Hung and Sanjiya again. Fans will tune in to see their old favorites, and may stay tuned to watch this year's group. Content Creators can learn two lessons from this: First, stay true to your vision. American Idol started as a show that gave chances to unknown talent, aided by colorful, but not particularly famous, judges. When they tried to make the judges the stars, the show failed. When creating content, have a clear vision and stick with it. The second lesson is that sometimes a show, or a tv series, or a book series, runs its course. People move on to other entertainment. American Idol is in its twelfth season. It's possible that no matter what the producers did, the audience would have melted away. That's why you should be true to your vision. Your show, or your movie, or your book, may fail. Odds are, even if you have some initial success, you show will go off the air eventually. You may as well realize your vision for it to the best of your ability.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
The advice is from Max Gordon, the legendary founder and owner of the Village Vanguard nightclub in New York City. Gordon launched the Vanguard in 1935 in a former speakeasy on Bleeker Street. At first he booked poetry readings and folk music, but in 1957 he changed the format to jazz and comedy. Almost all of the jazz greats appeared at the Vanguard, which also recorded their performances for their own record label. The advice from Max Gordon is from a conversation between Max and Jeff Levenson, who is now the head of the jazz label Half Note records, but in the early 1980s wrote for Downbeat, the leading jazz magazine of the time. Here's the story from Levenson: "I was the East Coast Editor for Downbeat, and I went to interview Max Gordon. I start asking him, how did he know when he began the club in 1936 that he was going to change the course of popular culture? That he was going to redefine how we view jazz and folk singing and even comedy? Did he know how visionary he was? I'm gushing; I'm a kid in front of the great Max Gordon. And he was just so beautiful to me. He had a cigar, and he was listening to me, just going on and on. And then he said, 'Look. Just shut up, OK? I want to tell you how it works. This is it: I got up, and I went to work. And I walked down my steps, and I put on my show, and I counted my money, and I closed my door, and I went home. And then the next day, I did the same thing. I walked down the steps, I counted my money, and I went home. I went to work. I went home. I went to work. If you do that long enough, then, if you're lucky enough, some kid comes up to you and asks you what your great vision is about life and how you changed the course of popular culture. But in fact, I was just doing what I felt like doing.'" Take it from Max: Do your work every day. Keep at it, and maybe someday they will be interviewing you about your vision.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
You may remember that a few months ago I wrote about Chad Harbach and his novel, "The Art of Fielding." Harbach worked on the novel for at several years while he was editing the literary magazine N + 1. Harbach wrote and re-wrote the novel until he made the story so compelling that an agent signed him and they sold the rights for $665,000. HBO bought the film rights and plans to make the story an HBO film. I loved the book -- I think it's smart and funny with believable,compelling characters. Harbach, who went to Harvard, also has a great insight into life at an elite college - not to mention a love for baseball. I'm happy to report that at this point everyone in my family has also read and loved it. It's a rare and wonderful thing when a book lives up to its hype, and if you're looking for a good novel with baseball as a key element as baseball season starts, please pick up "The Art of Fielding." There's a great deal all content creators can learn from this book. 1. Keep working and keep improving -- would you work on a piece of material for ten years if you knew you'd make a million dollars when you were done? What if you didn't know for sure? Harbach had a story he wanted to tell and he kept working until it was as good as he could make it. We should make sure all our content is as good as possible. 2. Once it's ready, market your material. Find the people who can help you. That means get an agent, pitch it to a network, rent a theater -- do what you need to do to get noticed. If you have to you can try to self-publish or put a video on Youtube. Get the word out. The audience isn't going to come to your home to read your book, you have to make it available for them. Finally, while you're creating your masterpiece, learn about the business. Harbach knew a lot about the publishing business because he was a magazine editor and made a lot of friends in the business. If you're working on a novel now, take some time to learn which agents and/or publishers might have interest in it. If you have a program idea, don't just figure out which networks would like out, find out who at those networks you should contact. There are plenty of ways to do this and I'll be writing about them in the next few posts. As an author myself, I also want to remind my readers that my book of poetry, "Two Car Garage," is now available on amazon.com, bn.com, on kindle, and directly from the publisher at chbmediaonline.com
Friday, March 15, 2013
My first television job was at NBC when it was the number one broadcast network. Thursday was "must-See TV" starting with the Cosby Show and included iconic shows like Seinfeld, ER, Cheers, and Family Ties. That's why, despite NBC's recent struggles it was still a shock to learn that NBC finished fifth in the Feb. 2013 sweeps behind CBS, ABC, FOX, and Univision, the Spanish-language network. It was a shock despite the fact I've blogged about both Univision and Telemundo's rise in the ratings, and my particular fondness for Sabado Gigante, the best variety show on television. How is it possible that NBC could fall so far, especially after a fall season that showed promising ratings increases? The short answer is: people don't want to watch their shows. Two shows performed well last fall: Sunday night football, thanks to the nation's sports fans, and The Voice. Those two series performed so well they masked the weakness of the rest of the schedule, proving once again that television remains a hit-driven business. In February, after the football season and without The Voice, and with a stumbling Today show and Tonight Show (rumors are Jay Leno will leave soon) NBC had difficulty promoting their programs. They just couldn't find an audience. It's possible to fix NBC. Americans still watch a lot of television. The NBC company, as opposed to the NBC broadcast network, has an excellent record of developing scripted programs for networks like USA and SYFY. Here's my four point plan to find the shows to get NBC back on top. 1. Look for what's not on TV. Don't imitate your competition. Find shows about things that aren't on the other broadcast networks. 2. Tap the producers providing hit shows for your cable networks and let them create shows they'd like to watch. 3. Aim for an older demographic -- the country is getting older, yet the tyranny of the 18-49 demographic sweet spot for advertisers keep a growing number of networks chasing a shrinking age group. Older viewers still make appointments to watch television. Find the next "Golden Girls" or "Hot in Cleveland." 4. Have patience. Stick with quality shows until they find an audience. Seinfeld got mediocre ratings at first, and then became an iconic show. Of course, as with all great content, it's not just the ideas, it's the execution of the ideas that brings ultimate success. The most important thing is to keep trying. The Entertainment Business is cyclical; this year's star can easily become next year's has-been. If NBC can execute the plan well, I believe the network can get back to number one.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
I wrote about the story of Rodriguez and Searching for Sugar Man last October It's an amazing underdog story. First time film maker Malik Bendjelloul learned about Rodriguez's story and decided to make a documentary even though he never had directed a film before. If this true story was a fiction film, you would say it never could have happened. To recap -- Folk singer Rodriguez recorded two albums in the early 1970s in Detroit. They didn't sell well in the US, and he made his living as a day laborer. Somehow, the albums made it to South Africa, where they connected with the anti-government protest movements. Roridguez's songs became the soundtrack of the South African anti-apartheid movement. He sold thousands of albums, although he didn't know that until fans from South Africa tracked him down. It's an incredible story and it really happened. Any major film company could have produced a documentary about this or bought Rodriguez's story to make a movie -- only they didn't. It took Bendjelloul, a man who was so passionate about the story that he decided to become a documentarian and spend his life savings in order to bring this story to world. His faith and hard work, and that of Rodriguez, was validated by the Academy with the Oscar for best documentary. Their success shows once again the power of story and importance of universal themes. Who among us doesn't think they deserve more appreciation for their work? Don't we all secretly believe that if the world knew about us we would be famous? Bendjelloul recognized the power of Rodriguez's story, and its universal appeal made the film popular and carried the day with the Academy. A great story, even if told badly, will affect more people than a bad story told well. In your work, look for the great stories. Pick ones with Universal themes that people can relate to. Who knows, someday you, too, may have as much impact as Rodriguez, and perhaps even win an Academy Award.