Eric’s Blog

Why “the New Storytelling” isn’t

With changing audience tastes and audiences increasingly preferring their content when they want it and how they want it, there’s a lot of talk about “the new storytelling”… innovations in story structures, new technologies and new visual approaches that will win back audiences which have moved on.

Indeed, the challenges program makers are facing are very real, very difficult. Producers who succeeded in the past know very well what worked “back then.” But what worked in the past may not work today… and that may be the only reference point they have to get where they need to go.

Of course, that’s what makes our business great. You have to win (most of the time) and you have to be smart.

About “the new storytelling” I remain skeptical. There are no short-cuts or magical solutions, technologies or formulas. But: answers will be found. Once they are, the successes will come.

In my own practice with my clients I have found that focusing strongly on the fundamentals of our storytelling increases audience share. But we have to check our storytellers, especially the most experienced – are they really delivering, or do they just say they are?

And there are several clear trends that we cannot ignore if we are to move forward and build audience share for our factual programs:

  • Thanks (or maybe no thanks) to the influence of online content, storytelling is becoming more “personal.” The role of presenter and reporter is merging. People who can do this effectively will be at a premium in the market for the foreseeable future.
  • Similarly, showing things as they happen, description and “discovery” is powerful for audiences and plays to television’s strengths.
  • Audiences increasingly demand stories that are relevant to their lives. The ability of a factual program to “prove relevance” by getting closer to the lives of the viewers is a key challenge and will ultimately determine if the program survives. Key entry point: our colleagues are not our audience.
  • Television is not online content, nor is it cinema, radio or print.
  • Compelling stories play to the strengths of the medium: visual, logically structured, emotional, strong characters, proving change visually and “happening now.”
  • While character-driven storytelling remains the gold standard for audiences, very few topics can have a true “protagonist” or support the “Hero’s Journey” structure. Strong topics with many conflicts directly affecting the character are the only basis for “Hero’s Journey” stories. As always: the higher the stakes for the character, the stronger the story is for the audience.
  • Effective marketing and promotion, including teasing inside the program will always be essential to success.
  • All stories (and teases) must pay off. Put another way, no “betrayal” or promising something the story does not deliver. At risk? Losing the audience, and for a long, long time. Once it is lost, rebuilding trust will take years.

More than ever, audiences today are looking for answers. They get far too much BS and “fake news” elsewhere and this is not what we do. Audiences will reliably respond to stories that resonate in their lives, told in a compelling way. That’s nothing new.