For the past twenty years, I have spent the majority of my time on an airplane. London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tel Aviv. Its all in the course of a day’s work.
I live in hotels.
And the first thing I do when I come into a hotel room is turn on the TV set. And the first thing I watch is the local news.
The odd thing is that no matter what country I am in, no matter what the language they speak, I always know when I am watching the news. French, Italian, Japanese, Urdu.. it does not matter, I always know when I am watching the news.
How do I know?
It always looks the same.
A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
France, England, Germany, Japan, China, Russia. It’s always a guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
BBC… NBC… NRK…. NHK…. ABC… TV3… CNN… Does not matter. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday… Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
8am, 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm, 11pm…. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
2007, 1997, 1987, 1977, 1967, 1957…. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
Go to the Museum of Broadcasting and pull out the tapes of John Cameron Swayze and the Camel Caravan of News. Guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
What is the problem here?
Television is potentially the most creative medium in the world. It’s all about manipulating pictures and sound and music and graphics and writing and storytelling. It has so much vast potential to do virtually anything.. and this, this… is the best we can come up with ? A guy at a desk with a box over his shoulder.
Why is that?
Why is a medium that could be so incredibly creative and innovative turns out to be so turgid, boring, banal and predictable?
A lot of it has to do with cost. The cost of production.
For most of the history of television, the actual act of making television was a remarkably expensive and complicated thing to do. You had to book crews and cameramen and sound men and editors and hudreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear and it took forever. You had to schlep this crap out to some location with a van and run electrical cables to power the lights and charge the batteries and everything weighed a ton. The whole thing cost money.
And when you are spending money, you tend to get conservative. Very conservative. So television news was born into a mindset of expensive and be careful! Don’t take any risks. Don’t try anything new. Because each time you commit the crew and the team you are spending money, and creativity requires risk that it might not work and if it does not work and you have spent money with nothing to show for it, you are gonna get fired. So television engendered and honored and promoted legions of highly professional non-risk takers. And they ended up running the shows and making the calls. And they were right… in 1977 and even in 1997. But not in 2007.
Not in 2007 because it does not cost anything… or hardly anything, to make TV.
You have an idea? Good, here’s the camera, here’s the laptop. There’s the door. See you at 6. Lemme see what you can do. If its great.. great. If it sucks.. who cares? Try again.
This is called Freedom to Fail.
It’s a really important element in any creative environment. We have to learn not only to tolerate failure, we have to learn to praise it, to encourage it, to embrace it.
Because this is how evolution works in nature (unless you believe in intelligent design). Nature tries lots of stuff. Millions of tries. Only a few survive, because they work better. But inherent in that evolution is is not only a tolerance of failure, but a praise of it. To improve you have to embrace failure. Which is something we don’t do in television news. We just keep repeating the same formula over and over and over for years and years.
If nature worked the way that TV news works, we would all still be single cell creatures.. with a boxes over our shoulders.