Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Get Out of the Kitchen
(May 25, 2006)

I made a comparison between broadcasters and the customers in a restaurant. However, the analogy is flawed. Customers in restaurants are ordering food for themselves, but movie studios and broadcasters are not the end users. They are buying to resell to millions of customers. As a result, they are not ordering based on their own tastes, but what they believe other people will want.

The problem is that they really have no clue. If you go to the movies or watch television you know this intuitively, but a new book by Bill Carter called Desperate Networks provides hard evidence that the highly paid executives in TV are no better at picking hits than anyone who can toss a coin.

You want proof? All the U.S. networks turned down American Idol. It got on Fox because Rupert Murdoch's daughter saw the British version of the show and advised her father to buy it. This was after Fox had turned it down.

ABC rejected Survivor and CSI. NBC turned down Desperate Housewives. Fox turned down Friends. CBS turned down Survivor and only relented when the producers were able to find enough sponsors to finance the show. Of course, we'll never know how many hit shows never made it to air because everyone rejected them.

Failures like Fired Up, Built to Last, Men Behaving Badly, Jenny, Conrad Bloom, The Apprentice with Martha Stewart, Mr. Personality, Coupling, Whoopi, Boomtown, Father of the Pride, and The Rebel Billionaire were put on the air. In fact, the majority of new series don't make it to a second season and the majority of feature films lose money, which is why I say that choosing projects by tossing a coin would produce better results. Over the long term, you'd have a 50% success rate.

So what does this mean for creative people? It means that there's no relationship between your project's value and how it is judged by media companies. Only the audience can decide. Therefore, the best approach is figuring out how to bypass the media companies and go directly to the audience.

Doing it with the web or self-publishing is easy. The hard part is supporting yourself while you develop a point of view and a body of work. However, nobody can mess with your work (and it's a guarantee that media companies will mess with it), and if you can build an audience large enough to support yourself, you're free to do the work you want to do. Bill Plympton, JibJab and Michel Gagne are doing it and should serve as an inspiration to us all.

The restaurant analogy devalues what we do. As cooks, we're just there to take orders from people with questionable taste. I think it's time to get out of the kitchen.