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How Kevin Spacey’s Talk on TV’s Future Has Lessons for the Ad Biz

August 23, 2013

Last night, actor Kevin Spacey delivered the James McTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

It was a rallying cry for television’s executives to embrace creative risk.

Not surprisingly, much of what Spacey’s lecture can be applied to us in the advertising business.

It’s a great talk, that can be found in full here, but I pulled out some soundbytes that are worthy of attention for the post.

He started with a humorous take on the current experience of home entertainment.

“Today when I think about how all of you might go home at the end of this festival, you can sense things are a bit different now than they were then: Its more likely that you have already recorded ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ on your DVR, as you gamely try to gather the family around the giant movie screen you’ve installed in what used to be the basement; then you can try to find out where your children are on Facebook, and might ask your partner to stop Instagramming photos of the meal they’ve just ordered from the delivery service – during the film – while Grandma desperately pins even more pictures of cats on her Pinterest page, as your son quietly and surreptitiously clears his entire browser history, and your daughter Tweets how boring ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is because its not in 3D or even in color . . . you too will feel that warm glow of precious family time when we all come together to . . .ignore each other.

It is indeed a more complicated, modern and wonderful life, isn’t it?”

He told the audience that shortened attention spans are a myth, binge viewing tells us so and its existence should give the industry permission to experiment.

“For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span? When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera. We can make NO ASSUMPTIONS about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt, and TRY NEW THINGS to discover appetites we didn’t know were there. The more we try new things, the more we will learn about our viewership, the more doors will open both creatively and from a business perspective.”

Spacey’s lecture was something of a tirade against the industry’s inate conservatism and reliance on testing. Like much of what’s happens in the ad industry, it’s not the testing that’s always the problem, it’s how it gets interpeted and used.

“In 1980, NBC sent an internal memo to writer & show runner Stephen Bochco with a list of  their concerns following a focus group testing of the program: “The most prevalent audience reaction indicated that the program was depressing, violent and confusing. Too much was crammed into the story. The main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities. Professionally, they were never completely successful in doing their jobs and personally their lives were in a mess. Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. Too many loose ends…” – etc…”

Spacey countered his negative views of the industry’s conventions with the experience of making House of Cards with Netflix; a company who’s lack of industry experience made them open to risk taking.

“The obligation of a pilot – from the writing perspective – is that you have to spend about 45 minutes establishing all the characters, create arbitrary cliff-hangers and generally prove that what you are setting out to do will work. Netflix was the only network that said, “We believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch this series. We don’t need you to do a pilot. How many episodes do you want to do?” And we said . . . “Two seasons?” By comparison, last year 113 pilots were made. 35 of those were chosen to go to air. 13 of those were renewed, but there’s not many of those left. This year 146 pilots were shot. 56 have gone to series and we don’t know the outcome of those yet. The cost of these pilots was somewhere between 300/400 million dollars each year. Makes our House of Card’s deal for 2 seasons look really cost effective.”

“And for all of Netflix’s big data and mathematical research, it was there when they opened the door to ‘House of Cards’. And boy we got lucky in the creative department because since Netflix had never done an original program before, they didn’t even have an office to give us notes. Can you imagine the notes we would have gotten if we’d been at a network that didn’t support us artistically…“Umm, we are very concerned about the fact that Kevin strangles a dog in the first five minutes of the show… we are afraid we’re going to lose half our audience”.

Finally, for Spacey, it’s all about great stories

“And the audience has spoken: they want stories. They’re dying for them. They are rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages, silly GIFS and god knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there. Shinier and juicier than it has ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don’t reach out and seize it.”

There’s traditionally been a distinction between advertising and entertainment, but should there be? If we want audiences to embrace our brands, we’ve got to entertain them and engage them with great storytelling, because that’s the only way our client’s brands are going to become famous.

As Spacey says, there’s never been a better time in the history of our business to share stories with an audience, we just need the imagination, patience and the ability to embrace risk, in order to make them happen.