TV is broken. It needs design thinking.
Don’t blame Kim, Khloe and Kourtney. When it comes to the current state of TV, the Kardashians and others of their narrative ilk are neither the culmination nor the cause. Like Gigolos, Coal, Jail, Cops, Real Housewives, The Ultimate Fighter and Pawn Stars, their second generation of so-called reality TV provides a portal into human experience and alternative identification that no amount of Boston Rob can ever compete with.
Don’t blame the platforms. With high subscriber satisfaction paving the way for intelligent advertising and a migration of the Internet’s targeting, tracking and recommendation functions, PVR is just discovering its potential to generate revenue. And with the likes of Netflix drooling over the $800 million valuation of streaming TV, watching online isn’t the culprit either. Both will put money into the production coffers for years to come.
No, TV isn’t broken because it’s going broke. TV is broken because so much TV sucks. Case in point: Game of Thrones. Don’t know the show? Here’s how HBO describes it:
Based on the bestselling fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author), this sprawling new HBO drama series is set in a grounded fantasy world inhabited by ambitious men and women of both honor and ill-repute, much like our own real world. In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, whoever controls the Iron Throne holds unbelievable power, and the series centers on the rise and fall of several families that covet that power at all costs.
Forget metaphor or allegory – the only intrigue in Game of Thrones is how this show got made. A clear, present and dangerous signal that the organization responsible for giving the TV show a new set of legs over the past decade is slipping in a big way, HBO’s latest begs the question: If these guys are slipping, what does that mean for the overall state of serial or episodic small screen fiction?
That HBO is slipping with Game of Thrones is a point of personal assessment and concern rather than an alarm bell sounding in the TV business. Because of its sheer content scale – as well as ideas generated out of creative shops like HBO, Showtime, AMC and some of NBC – the past few years have seen a surge in the quality of ‘the show’. A recent quick poll of Idea Couture employees reveals the scope of what viewers connect with and some of the reasons for those connections:
- The Killing (“honest characters”)
- Weeds (“subversive, challenges gender stereotypes and makes me think about the concepts of right and wrong”)
-The Walking Dead (“human frailties, political commentary and survival fantasy”)
- Fringe (“I miss X-Files and it’s the closest, next best thing”)
- Law and Order SVU (“a long journey that’s never disappointed”)
- 30 Rock (“fucking hilarious”)
- Love It or List It (“where my fantasies play out come true, and make me feel like I’m living what they’re going through”)
- The Mentalist (“quirky and psychological”)
- America’s Next Top Model (“creative ideas coming up almost every time”)
- Archer (“funny and engaging stories that make cartoon characters look super attractive”)
To that list, I will add a disclosure of my current favorite TV shows: True Blood (for an exploration of our culture’s sexually charged romance with power, life, death, immortality and transformation) and River Monsters (for a fisherman’s ethnographic-like exploration of place, fear, mythology and the quest).
Some viewers have discovered something in Game of Thrones, too. The first two episodes scored a respectable 2.2 million U.S. viewers. That number climbed to 6.8 million via HBO’s OnDemand, and you can probably add another half million viewers who watched on the following Monday nights thanks to Ice Films, EzTV, TV Break, Megavideo and others grey market streaming sites.
And some viewers haven’t, like me. My issue with Game of Thrones is that its story just doesn’t seem relevant. To what extent that applies exclusively to me and others who watched episodes one and two with disappointment or applies to a wider demographic that never watched or will fall off the cliff before Episode 3 will only be revealed with time. I suspect I’m not alone though, and the reason is clear: zeitgeist.
TV, like Hollywood, has an odd relationship with zeitgeist. Sometimes it gets the prevailing mood or trope, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it drives that mood or trope, other times it reflects it. While doing one or the other, however, it always feeds on itself, following the Sneeze Rule where, every year or so, we get three law shows, three medical shows, three pawn shows, three junk buyer shows, three forensic science shows, three ghost shows shows and so on. Hopefully, two more Game of Thrones aren’t in development.
What ingredients of the zeitgeist might have inspired HBO to develop a teleplay of Game of Thrones? At first, the only signal I could locate to suggest there was a suitable scale of viewers who couldn’t wait for The Hobbit to provide them with majestic steeds, warrior’s garb and talk of valerian steel and dragon bone was Evony.
Then I thought longer. Lots of people are into combat, deflowering maidens and political maneuvering. But don’t the UFC, the Internet and the Birthers fulfill their desires? Maybe it has something to do with economic or other uncertainties over the future driving a desire among white Americans to live in simpler times? That could be it, given that the fiction of George Martin and others in his genre works as romantic fantasy for white men to reclaim an imagined, Euro-centric mythical past when we were all a little bit Celtic, when wenches didn’t complain about a good ravaging, and when the barbarian hordes who threatened to deflower them were suspiciously brown.
If that’s the inspiration for developing this into a show – and the zeitgeist is there among enough viewers to make it a financial success for HBO – go for it. Write off this and any ensuing criticism as the ramblings of a bitter old man frustrated with the fact that HBO has yet to develop a show around Weaveworld by Clive Barker, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill or Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear.
If Game of Thrones turns out to be a financial flop, however, consider investing in design thinking. The front end of the design thinking process – used by some of the world’s leading brands and businesses to generate, develop and validate ideas before they come to market – could be just the thing that battling channels like HBO, Showtime and AMC need to gain competitive advantage in this transformational time for TV.
So what happens at this front end?
At Idea Couture, we encourage our clients to conduct a comparative industry scan at the beginning of almost every job. Rather than leveraging ideas from within industries, we believe that more valuable signals for where to go come from outside your business. For example, if a client asks for help developing a cosmetics line we might suggest scanning new and emerging cooking or food cultures to understand the languages and ingredients of health, nourishment and inner beauty. Then, to more deeply assess if and how an idea is needed, wanted or might fulfill some latent, cultural or zeitgeist-y demand is to do exploratory (open to whomever, whatever) or more targeted (with a specific consumer, market or other focus) field research by an anthropologist or sociologist.
The aim is to beat the flu of ‘me too’ innovation where, like TV and Hollywood, brands and businesses continue to suffer from the Sneeze Rule. The result is always more than three ideas. And the process is longer, more detailed and more business oriented towards the middle and end. I’ll save that discussion for a later time. Until then, HBO, Showtime and AMC – please consider, or reconsider, Bear, Barker and/or Hill.