Wednesday, October 5, 2011

People can't tell you they want things they can't imagine - words of wisdom from a network president

Proving that not all TV executives are as foolish as their reputations, Fox Television entertainment president Kevin Reilly gave an incredible keynote speech at MIPCOM earlier this week.  One segment in particular really spoke to me:

Many successes are the result of happy accidents. I’ve come to be as respectful of that, as I am of clear vision. In fact, I think one important aspect of clear vision is setting up the possibility for a happy accident. Like any executive, I put a high value on analysis and strategic thinking. However, I’ve also seen over-thinking squeeze out innovation and grind down alternative points of view.
We often look to research to guide our decision. I’ve certainly found research to be a helpful tool, and we do a fair amount of it on both programming and marketing materials.  I’ve seen it accurately identify a break-out show like ER for example, that many executives didn’t understand at first.


The fact is, if I had relied solely on research results, I would never have gone forward with some of the shows that I am most proud of and that marked some of my biggest successes. The Office was a horrifically testing pilot, even though a very small base of young people loved it. American fans of the British original were disappointed and the new audience thought Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, was mean spirited and the show depressing and boring. We tested Glee four times, all with the same negative result: it was a show that nobody liked. It didn’t fit neatly into any reference bucket: comedy, drama or musical. As a result, it seemed to be rejected. Therein lies the trap — when you poll people about what they want, they don’t know how to tell you they want or like things they can’t yet imagine.

Steve Jobs made products that people didn’t know they couldn’t live without. When Jim Cameron was making Avatar, few could have imagined that tall blue people was something the world wanted to see. Far more movies and television shows have failed for being bland than being bold.

Unfortunately when a bold bet fails it’s met with the question, “what were you thinking?” So more often than not, we stick to the formula. Yet I’ve rarely heard asked, “What were you thinking putting on a derivative, boring show that looked like everything else?” I don’t understand that. I think now, more than ever, the audience simply won’t indulge it.

Be bold.  Give your audience something they didn't know they needed.  That is something every creative type should aspire to.

You can find the transcript of the entire speech here.


  1. Thank you for those inspiring words. I wish I knew a producer who believes them as much as I do.

  2. I like the sentiment. Fox definitely has a history of taking the most risks of the major networks, which often leads to the emotional devastation of the handfuls of viewers whose hearts their groundbreaking shows grab before they are abruptly canceled.

  3. Sad thing is, he used, at least in the sections you quoted, shows I absolutely, positively abhor. I hate both the UK and American version of The Office, hate Glee more than I ever hated Buffy and Angel.

    I know what I want - a show that takes the stereotypes about people and blows them out of the water. That isn't afraid to use comedy to teach historical events. That'll show that blaming anything for evil acts be it religion, science, video games, music, etc is scapegoating and evil is 100% a choice and only the one who chooses to do evil is to blame, nothing else. And basically offends everyone the way I do - by finding the balance between two extremes. Neither too liberal, nor too conservative, not too religious nor too scientific.

    All that and unafraid to cast people, be they steady cast or just guest stars, like Dick Van Dyke, Michael Crawford, etc.

  4. You know, Buffy, Angel and both versions of The Office would make my list of best and most original TV shows ever. And I'm not alone like that. You're perfectly welcome to your opinion - just don't expect a lot of support out there on that limb.

    Entertainment is meant to be provocative, and if everything was required to be neither too liberal, too conservative, too religious, nor too scientific, what would remain is bland homogenous entertainment. The world you posit would have had no room for All in the Family, The West Wing, 24, South Park, Law & Order and many, many others.

  5. The UK office was brilliant, funny and smart! The US version was for an American audience and was great but culturally different. As an Aussie, I was in more tune with the UK version. Glee, is great; the West Wing was crack on steriods, for me! A wonderful TV series!