“UN-LEARN,” I said to the group of executives I was speaking to. “This is the most important lesson I can give you. It is no longer about what you know, but about how fast you can unlearn everything you know, analyse the new reality, and adapt to it. We are in a completely new and unfamiliar media landscape – both tech-wise and storytelling wise. So now it is time to unlearn.”
That’s how I started the strangest talk I was ever asked to deliver. The organiser asked me to speak to a group of senior executives in a gigantic media entity in a developing market. The request was a little strange – the executives had to make decisions about content, but they came from other parts of the industry, such as technology, marketing, and finance, and they had no idea how to approach content. “You gotta do me a favor,” he said, “We need a 101 course on how to become content managers in 2020. How long will you need? Is an hour enough?”
A week later, I was standing in front of a brilliant group of executives. Sharp, analytical minds. Each an expert in their field. Because all of them owned a TV, some of them thought they could make content decisions. A quick look at some of the odd decisions made in recent years (and the millions of dollars that went down drain with them) is enough to understand the implications of such an arrogant approach. Most executives were my age and looked surprised when I was talking about unlearn as the main point. I’m not really sure what to teach you but I can give you a few thoughts before you begin
1. It is always about the audience
We are a generation that is stuck in the middle – on the one hand, we are not afraid and even fascinated by the possibilities technology has opened for us. The opportunities in 5G, AI, algorithms. On the other hand, we also recognise the value of a classic story with strong characters. We understand the high expectations viewers have for their attention, not to mention time and money. So to make a decision, we should always start with what we too often tend to forget – the audience. In the old old days, our attention was divided between very few channels. Outside the screen, only our family members demanded our attention – the kids in the living room or a spouse holding the remote. Today, the attention economy is much more complex – endless linear channels, game consoles, platforms, and on-demand content – and that is on the TV screen alone. Cellular devices and social networks compete for the same attention and constantly shout, “leave that story on the screen, your the boss just uploaded an embarrassing picture or that dad from school accidentally wrote something racist again – there is a drama here too!”
2. In a noisy environment, there is no space for less than amazing stories
The result is that today’s content must grab the viewer where they are most sensitive and hold tight. Content managers have to identify the stories that will cut through the din, nurture them properly, package them correctly and market them effectively – luck, intuition, intellect, and authentic ability to understand the needs of the audience are all necessary for this process to work. After all, for every Fleabag, there are hundreds of shows that no one will remember. One way to succeed is to take the story and make the cellular and social networks complete the viewing experience. Create a content brand that is prestigious and that the viewer will want to tweet about so that everyone knows they saw the content and what they think about it.
3. Playing safe is not really an option
“So how do we make the right decisions?” one manager asked. Honestly, I have no idea. It’s been said that a TV manager is only as good as the last decision they made. In recent years, the default for quite a few executives has been to remake a programme we liked in the Nineties and Eighties. This is a generation that is addicted to nostalgia and reminiscing on the previous times they enjoyed remembering. Spin-offs, remakes, and reboots are easy solutions – but not necessarily the good one.
4. Listening is more important than ever
A skilled content manager must listen – to the audience, the industry, the creators – everyone. Our ears should be smarter than any computer that analyses data and should authentically enjoy even the most stupid content. An executive must ask each producer, “why does this idea fit on our platform? And “why now?” And listen especially to what is not said. Hear the story and think about the viewer being bombarded with endless temptations – where does it meet the viewer? Does it offer any real value for the viewer’s attention?
5. Enjoy the ride
The bottom line is that we should not forget how lucky we all are. This is a period of unprecedented change in the history of broadcast content. A change that is bigger than when broadcasts went into colour in the 1960s, the introduction of cable TV in the 1980s, or when the industry switched to digital in the 2000s. In what other professions can you come to the office every day like Captain Kirk and go on a journey to where no man has gone before.
I wrapped, as I said at the beginning, with this: feel free to UNLEARN it all.
Top image: Getty Images – VioletaStoimenova