Eric’s Blog

Inspiring innovation: the development mentality in factual television

In times of changing audience tastes and viewing habits, the continual pressure to increase audience share with scarce or limited resources in an environment where “nothing seems to work anymore” the demand for innovation increases. But how can creators of factual television create an environment making innovation possible? A top client in factual programming suggested a practical approach: establishing a “development mentality.” And here it is:

Step 1: recognize that even the best ideas stop working. Factual programs need to be renewed, and often. The program has to be “re-born” regularly, maybe as much as every week, probably every month, certainly every season. It doesn’t happen by itself. You have to make it happen.

Step 2: the Executive Producer is responsible for making sure there are new things for the viewers, all the time. The EP has to be the kind of person to ask specifically for new ideas, to demand them (even though, very importantly, the ideas themselves do not have to come from the EP.) He or she has to insist all the time.

Step 3: identify people on the team who have the “development mentality.” Where they stand in the organization is less important than they are people who see that the opportunity to develop new ideas for television is an advantage, not a problem or a burden. These are people who not only welcome the idea to try new things, they are not afraid of failure; failure is often associated with new ideas.

If there is no one on the team with this mentality, you have to go outside the team. The drawback is when you go outside the team you start with nothing – someone who knows nothing about the program. Also, the team will not react well to outside input generally.

The best solution is always to have these “development” people internal to the team, with (perhaps) some outside input.

Step 4: designate a person to lead the development initiative (not the EP.) This should be someone who is eager to develop new ideas for the program, someone inside the program, and also someone who is seen as a kind of leader, possibly a deputy of the EP. Their responsibility will be 60% their usual job, and 40% development of new ideas.

Step 5: once a month, this person, the development leader, convenes a meeting with a specific result intended – generating a lot of new ideas. The development leader will bring ideas (from the internet, outside sources, etc.) that have caught their eye, and the people at the meeting will bring their own ideas. These ideas will usually be small and even weird.

Step 6: at the meeting, led by the development leader, the group will decide which ideas to pursue. At the conclusion of the monthly meeting, the EP will then demand the list of new ideas from the development leader. It is completely the responsibility of the development executive to manage this, and to bring the new ideas to the EP.

Step 7: the EP has to take at least some of the ideas and make them happen in the program. The ideas will have to be tried or the process will not work. Many of the ideas will fail but some will work. The successes, and there will be some, will lead to renewal of the program.

The key to success? No senior program people (and definitely not the EP) are allowed in the development meeting; these are the people who think they know what works, in other words, “we never do it that way.” This will stifle the process.

Another key: the EP and the senior management have to give the new ideas the time to succeed. They also have to be willing to recognize that failure is part of the process.

And one final point: this approach is perfect for the senior program executives and the EP. They can spend their time making the day-to-day program the best it can be, while the development team (as a result of the monthly meetings) is coming up with the new ideas to renew the program.