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Product creation in entertainment

I attended the Future of Entertainment conference today at Stanford and enjoyed it immensely. Here were the keynote speakers and here were the panels. As I watched, the first keynote really resonated with me, and I elaborate below. In general, it was great to listen to this vastly different culture talk about intellectual property, distribution, and all the other things we nerds like to discuss.

Andrea Wong and new show creation
First up was Andrea Wong, an executive vice president at ABC in charge of all our favorite shows, like "The Bachelor" "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" "Dancing with the Stars" etc. She talked about a bunch of subjects, but the one that resonated with me was the process she used to create new shows. Ultimately, whenever I’m thinking about technology products for consumers, I often think how you’d approach it if you IGNORED technology, business model, etc., and just tried to build for mass appeal. I think film, music, and TV are good representations of what it’d be like to just cater to customer tastes, rather than building features for the sake of features.

Her group at ABC would do a couple different things to get ideas:

  • Getting pitches from production groups (Mark Burnett of Survivor, for example)
  • Looking at successful shows from other countries, or in the past
  • Brainstorming based on peoples’ emotions and common themes

I’ll mostly focus on the last one because it’s the only one where you’re trying to create ideas from scratch.

Tapping emotional roots
She said that ultimately, getting inspired to create new shows is all about taking large-scale, emotionally resonant themes and developing shows on them. Andrea’s team would take an idea like "psychics" or "falling in love" or "judging how other people live" or "belief in God" and develop shows based on those deep emotions.

Interestingly, Andrea said that because of her background in engineering
(EE degree from MIT), she was trained to take a very complicated
problem and reduce it to simpler ones, which was quite opposite to how her brain needed to think. That sort of reductionist,
deductive logic is what defines an engineer. However, the act of
creating a new show is to take a very small nugget of emotion and building out complexity
from that.

Media as a "failure-driven" business
Another key point was that for all the success she’s had, she’s also had some really big failures. Andrea said that 95% of shows are failures, and that every year, they launch an entire season of new ideas and new shows, and maybe 1 or 2 ever become real properties.

Part of the key then, of course, is to try a lot of different things and realize that you’re facing difficult odds. The only way, then, to success is to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and not get discouraged when the majority of your ideas fail.

Looking at technology products as entertainment, not tools
There’s a huge bias in the tech industry to look at our products and services as tools for getting things done, rather than as entertainment. For example, one looks at eBay and sees a consumer-to-consumer marketplace, that helps you get rid of your junk.

But what if you look at your products as entertainment, something that drives fun based on characters and story? Is there a better way to look at eBay, beyond its functional uses? Perhaps the "story" of eBay is one of winning and losing auctions, of drama and tension created by the countdown timer, or one of surprise and discovery based on finding awesome one-of-a-kind things? Is that what makes eBay fun, rather than merely a tool?

I think this is a surprisingly fresh way to look at consumer products that hasn’t been explored much. And we should, as it would make our days more interesting :)

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