Commentary

Courting Failure To Find Hot Players - Or Programming

An anonymous NBA general manager, quotedin ESPN The Magazine, plans to lose a lot of games this year in pursuit of the top pick in the next NBA draft.

It’s a key strategy, but even losing every game wouldn’t be enough. All non-playoff teams participate in a lottery to grab the most highly desired college players.

Just wondering if TV networks and programmers shouldn’t act similarly. But it wouldn’t be about getting the best college pick to write the next big drama or sitcom.  Instead, the reference points would be about examining failure, learning lessons, and coming out the other side to find success.

Many stories have been told about down-on-their-luck fringe producers with crazy ideas for network shows.

Successful networks avoid these producers because their executives want to protect their working lives. But a last-place network with nothing to lose might bite at a hair-brained idea -- perhaps one about suburban housewives who might be desperate; or a crazy hotelier/casino owner with wild orange-looking hair hoping to develop a competition to seek an apprentice; or a complicated story about a 1960s’ advertising executive.

Not that anyone really wants failure. But what about a hunch or whim -- possibly without focus groups or research -- that leads to a silver lining or a bigger golden quilt. Many TV executives would say this is what the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on program development is about. But that process also looks to eliminate risk.

Netflix went ahead with a full-season order of “House of Cards” and then did the same with other shows. It has a different measure for success than TV networks. Was this a risk?

Fox and some other networks are also going ahead with full-season orders for series, forgoing the usual slow and predicted rollout of shows.

Who is not taking chances? Does CBS’ “Mom” look all that risky? How about NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show”? ABC’s “Trophy Wife” maybe? Fox’s “Dads”?

Cable network executives have more room to blow it -- so they can take a shot on a family that has built a multi-million dollar business manufacturing duck calls in Monroe, Louisiana; or a series on re-creating bible stories; or a show on pregnant teenage moms.  

However they eventually got produced, some of this represented the a good developmental attitude in the modern fractionalized media world. Digital TV platforms -- with perhaps fewer resources -- are trying for the same thing.

Sports can be different. Entertaining an NBA crowd, in person or on TV, with a lame team is risky. How can fans get excited about only 20 wins in an 82-game schedule? How much can a mascot entertain?

But then a player whom you've never seen comes off the end of the bench and rockets to attention -- like Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks a few years ago. Because the coach said, “Why not?” Lin went on to a series of 20-point plus games leading the team to a bunch of surprising victories, all while the Knicks’ big-name stars were out of commission.

That’s rare. Then again, so are really big, groundbreaking TV shows.

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