Kevin Spacey on Innovation and the Future of Television

After watching Kevin Spacey's recent keynote speech at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, I was absolutely blown away by the clarity in which he talked about how new technology was causing a disruption in this very traditional broadcast industry.  

The beauty about this speech is that it has some great lessons with implications outside of just television - it is very easy to apply these learnings to industries like Advertising and Marketing as a whole.

The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture 2013: Kevin Spacey.

Spacey was obviously chosen to talk about the future of television based upon the recent success of House of Cards. While this was touched on, it turned out to be more of an impassioned speech about the need to take more risks and evolve with the changing nature of the customer.

On House of Cards and innovation, Spacey had the following to say:

"House of Cards - creatively - actually follows the model more often employed here in Great Britain. The television industry in this country has never really embraced the pilot season so looked to by the networks in the United States as a worthwhile effort. Now, of course we went to all the major networks with House of Cards and every single one was very interested in the idea… but every one of them wanted us to do a pilot first.

It wasn't out of arrogance that David Fincher, Beau Willimon and I were not interested in having to audition the idea, it was that we wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would take space to play out.

The obligation of a pilot - from the writing perspective - is that you have to spend about 45 minutes establishing all of the characters, create arbitrary cliff-hangers and generally prove that what you are setting out to do will work. Netflix was the only network that said "We believe in you. We've run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch this series. We don't need you to do a pilot. How many episodes do you want to do? And we said… "Two seasons?". By comparison, last year 113 pilots were made. 35 of those were chosen to go to air. 13 of those were renewed, but there's not many of those left. This year 146 pilots were shot. 56 have gone to series and we don't know the outcome of those yet. The cost of these pilots was somewhere between 300/400 million dollars each year. Makes our House of Card's deal for 2 seasons look really cost effective.

Clearly the success of the Netflix model - releasing the entire season of 'House of Cards' at once has proved one thing - the audience want control. They want freedom. If they want to binge - as they've been doing on 'House of Cards' - then we should let them binge. Many people have stopped me on the street to say, "Thanks - you sucked three days out of my life". And through this new form of distribution, I think we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn't learn: Give people what they want - when they want it - in the form they want it - at a reasonable price - and they'll more likely pay for it rather than steal it; well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy.

We get what audiences want - they want quality. We get what the talent wants - artistic freedom. And the only way to protect talent and the quality of our work is for us to be innovative." 

The insight here is so simple - give the customer what they want, and don't make them jump through hurdles to get it! It reminds me of a simple comment from Kim Dotcom on how Hollywood could reduce piracy, by a simple change in their behaviour.


Spacey goes on to talk about what author Brett Martin in his book "Difficult Men" refers to as the "Third Golden Age"of television. A time characterised by a very different kind of dramatic show that broke away from the traditional network procedural franchise model. 

In the words of Martin:

"Indeed, TV has always been reflexively compared to film, but this form of ongoing, open-ended storytelling was, as an oft-used comparison had it, closer to another explosion of high art in a vulgar pop medium: the Victorian serialised novel. That revolution also had been facilitated by upheavals in how stories were created, produced, distributed, and consumed: higher literacy, cheaper printing methods, the rise of a consumer class."

When shows like The Sopranos first appeared, its crazy to think that VHS was still the norm. The first disruption happened with the growth of DVD, and the rise of binge TV viewing - new viewers who missed the initial showing could go back and catch up through marathon sessions on the couch over a weekend. This continued with new Digital technologies.

Says Spacey:

"The warp speed of technological advancement - the Internet, streaming, multi-platforming - happens to have coincided with the recognition of TV as an art form. So you have this incredible confluence of a medium coming into its own JUST AS the technology for that medium is drastically shifting. Studio and networks who ignore either shift - whether the increasing sophistication of story telling, or the constantly shifting sands of technological advancement - will be left behind. And if they fail to heed these warnings, audiences will evolve faster than they will. They will seek the stories and content-providers who give them what they demand - complex, smart stories available whenever they want it, on whatever device they want, wherever they want. Netflix and other similar services have succeeded because they have married good content with a forward-thinking approach to viewing habits and appetites.

The risk at this juncture is becoming too institutionalised, too schematic - thinking that something which is working NOW will necessarily work a year from now. The curse of success is that the stakes get higher. Careers are made, salaries increase, and people have reputations and track records to protect. The end result is a shift towards conservatism, away from risk-taking. And if there is one thing that overlaps between business and art, it's that in the long run, THE RISK-TAKERS ARE REWARDED."

And on the technology shift:

"Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole really any different than a FILM? Do we define film by being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that. If you are watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because you're not watching it in the theatre? If you watch a TV show on your iPad is it no longer a TV show? The device and length are irrelevant. The labels are useless - except perhaps to agents and managers and lawyers who use these labels to conduct business deals. For kids growing up now there's no difference watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV and watching Game of Thrones on their computer. It's all CONTENT. It's all STORY.

To say nothing of the audiences' attention span. For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn't that show an incredible attention span? When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera. We can make NO ASSUMPTIONS about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt, and TRY NEW THINGS to discover appetites we didn't know were there. The more we try new things, the more we will learn about our viewership, the more doors will open both creatively and from a business perspective."

Think about how this applies to traditional Marketing and Advertising theories, and the ways we keep siloing activities into categories that really don't mean what they used to anymore. Our customers no longer fit on one side of the Rubik's cube, so our thinking and approach needs to change.

The last part covers a little bit of what I touched on in my post on Generation C, and the growth of the generation defined by their need for Connection, Community, Creation and Curation.

From Spacey:

"And the audience has spoken: they want stories. They're dying for them. They are rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages, silly Gifs and god knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there. Shinier and juicier than it has ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don't reach out and seize it.

"We all still crave shared experiences. But these days the water cooler moment (where people gathered at work to talk about what they'd seen on TV the night before) has vanished. We no longer live in a world of appointment viewing. So the water cooler has gone virtual, because the discussion is now online. And it's a sophisticated, no-spoilers generation; and because of that we need never be alone with our Breaking Bad habit or our crazy obsession with Dexter. And stories are the great leveller - capable of crossing borders to unite audiences. And when there is so much conflict in our world as countries go to war, with all that pulls us apart - it is culture that unites us."

Watch the video or read the full transcript, and see how a master storyteller delivers a fantastic, motivating speech.