The common notion about entertainment is that the better the quality, the bigger the audience. There’s some truth to that. But what I find more interesting is that it works the other way too: You need popularity before you have the luxury of developing quality.
There are plenty of examples of popularity creating quality. The first season of The Simpsons, for example, was awful in terms of quality. The writing and animation were primitive. The voice actors hadn’t found their groove yet. But because it was so different – an adult cartoon with an edge – it gained an immediate huge audience, mostly from curiosity and buzz. This audience allowed them to stay on the air, develop their show through practice, and hire highly talented writers. Within a few seasons The Simpsons became arguably one of the best TV shows ever aired.
The TV show Friends had a similar path. The first few episodes were awful in terms of writing and acting. But because the actors had charisma, and the concept of young, single friends was appealing, the ratings were immediately high and the cast and creators had time and money to develop it into a phenomenon. Quality followed popularity.
Dilbert was a bit like that too. The first few years of Dilbert were so poorly drawn and written it seems a miracle it found a home in any newspapers at all. But there was something different about it, and people saw just enough potential that I was given the luxury of years to learn how to draw (better) and learn how to write for my audience.
You can see this phenomenon work the other way too. Lately I’ve been watching on Hulu.com a cancelled TV series called Firefly. The show is part science fiction, part western, part action, part comedy. That makes it nearly impossible to explain, and evidently harder to market. When it originally aired on TV, I never saw a commercial for it or a mention of it. Yet in my opinion it was one of the best TV shows aired, and that was its first season right out of the gate. Quality wasn’t enough to find a mass audience. It needed the curiosity factor, or some other appeal to get an audience.
Entertainment gets a chance to find an audience only if the concept is so simple it can be understood in a few words. Examples:
Friends: It’s about some young, single friends
The Simpsons: cartoon about a dysfunctional family
Dilbert: Comic about a nerd and his dog
Garfield: About a cat
When you find an exception to the simplicity rule, it often proves the point. For example, Seinfeld was famously “about nothing.” That should have been a recipe for failure, and indeed it had poor ratings for the first few dozen shows. I forget the details, but somehow it ran below the radar at the network because it was financed or produced in a different division than usual. That difference allowed it to stay on the air and develop quality, and an audience, while other shows with low ratings came and went.
So here is the key learning. If you are planning to create some business or other form of entertainment, you will need quality at some point to succeed. But what is more important than quality in the beginning is some intangible element that makes your project inherently interesting before anyone has even sampled it. That initial audience will give you the luxury of time to create quality.
I have a twofold test for whether something can obtain instant popularity and thus have time to achieve quality:
1. You must be able to describe it in a few words.
2. When people hear about it, they ask questions.
I saw this at work with my restaurant. We recently started what we call after hours dancing. (See how easily explained it is?) And as soon as we started talking about the idea, everyone had lots of questions. Was it live music or a DJ? What kind of music? What time does it end? Is there a cover charge? And so on. Rarely did anyone say, “That’s nice. Good luck with it.” Something about the idea makes people curious. And sure enough, it has been a solid success with no advertising, just word of mouth. And this immediate audience has allowed us to improve on it every week. Quality followed popularity.