Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman summed up Hollywood in three words, “Nobody knows anything”.
Goldman – responsible for All The Presidents Men, Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – wrote the phrase in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, detailing his life in the film business up until the early 80s. (It also pretty much sums up the media business of the 21st century too.)
The phrase neatly sums up Hollywood’s dilemma – no one has any idea how well a movie will fare commercially, they invest millions of dollars into a two-hour movie with no real idea of how much profit this will (or won’t) generate.
Niels Bohr – “prediction is difficult , especially about the future.”
What this tends to do is make us more risk averse. We want to back propositions which are more likely to succeed. There is an automatic built-in reluctance to back the new or innovative in case it fails. It’s why we get sequels, on the basis that it worked once, it can work again…
The same risk aversion is true of TV. I was watching the evening news on ITV recently. The reporter’s byline appeared on-screen, complete with Twitter address.
Why does this illustrate risk aversion? Mainly, because they could have (and perhaps should have) done this four-years-ago.
In 2007 I was working for ITV as one of the Channel managers for its fledgling local web TV offering.
One of the remits of the service was to broaden the reach of the TV news service, to engage with the community and to generate content for both the main daily news programme and unique content for the site as a whole.
With a marketing budget of about £0 we had to explore all avenues for promoting the service. One of these channels was Twitter.
In Twitter it was almost immediately apparent what its benefits would be. It was a fantastic two-way communication channel with the audience, an effective way of communication and generating viewer feedback.
The service was one of the tools which helped us understand the audience we were trying to reach, helped us understand what did and didn’t interest them. Granted this was only a small part of the TV audience demographic, but it was a vital tool for the website.
I wasn’t alone in this view. Ben Ayres, later Head of Social Media and Community, compiled a list of ITV tweeters, and there were around 12-14 across the network. Most of the accounts related to the website, news and sport teams.
At the time, the regional news was going through a shift. Budget cuts were coming in, the format of the main news broadcast was going to change. The fear was that the viewers wouldn’t like the change, so it was seen as essential to find new ways of engaging with the audience.
It was on this basis that I suggested we started using Twitter as an active means of actively engaging with the viewer via the TV programme.
I pointed out all the potential benefits: It was instantaneous, the potential to access new content and media, building community. The suggestion was met with a firm no. It was a fad, these things will pass. We didn’t want to jump on board a bandwagon so we’ll stick with email and text. I’m know that across ITV similar conversations were being had and being met with similar responses.
Shortly before I left the company, after it decided to close down its initial Local foray, ITV appointed Ben Ayres as Head of Social Media and Community. Someone who’s main role was to sell the benefits of social media tools to the broadcaster.
Fast Forward to 2011 and ITV news have started to incorporate and use tools like Twitter in similar ways to the suggestions made three or four years ago. They are far more engaged in social media than they were. Having someone to champion the use of social media was the key.
It probably didn’t hurt that the folks down the road in Shepherd’s Bush were also actively using social media and the web to promote its broadcast activity.
It’s all very well to have ideas, but without the support of a decision-maker to enact it, or a senior influencer to help act as a champion, it’s very difficult to implement ideas effectively.
Obviously there was no guarantee that using social media would have radically altered the regional news programme, indeed too much radical change can lead to the same negative impacts as no change at all. But it was the reluctance to try that was surprising.
And it still surprises me. It surprises me that the big media companies don’t experiment more.
We are living in an age of free. Experimentation costs nothing, there are a plethora of free tools and services which allow greater engagement with the audience you are trying to reach. If it fails to work in the way you expect, fine. Move on, try something else. Yet they don’t do it.
It’s not that they don’t understand the potential benefits; it’s about the desire to take a risk, to recognise and overcome the fear of failing.
I guess Goldman was right, nobody knows anything, but having someone willing to take a punt, to back an idea sure does help.