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Don’t Please Everyone


The other night I googled “Sopranos” and “risk.” My thinking was this–what made cable TV decide to go from bland, crowd-pleasers to some of the best television writing and art direction I’ve ever seen (think how The Sopranos has led to The Wire and AMC’s Mad Med Breaking Bad). David Carr neatly summarizes HBO’s move in his New York Times article “Giving a Wide Berth to Artists of Cable TV.” He States:

“HBO had figured out that the strategy followed by broadcast networks–trying to please all of the people at least part of the time–was a losing formula for a pay service. Instead it began producing remarkable programming for a discrete audience that would pay a premium for quality. That audience has ballooned to some 30 million viewers…”

What made HBO decide to break the mold, or stop making “that which is clearly good art for all” (I stole this phrase from Polly Carl’s recent blog post on Howlround, “The Beauty of Complexity: Or the Death of the Pure Aesthetic“). In Carl’s post she recommends that leaders at art institutions “get out of the way” and “listen” to the crowd. I think this is exactly what HBO did, and inspired many other networks to do the same. How might artists and art leaders learn from HBO’s risk taking and trust? Cuz you know what? There are more people than you think who want chunky spaghetti sauce rather than the “please the masses” original Prego sauce (see Malcom Gladwell’s talk “Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce“). BUT…it’s scary to take the leap and make a line of chunky sauce when the Prego sauce is selling kind of fine…and the company is surviving.

When considering risky choices and a willingness to leap into the void of possibly not pleasing all the people, I’m reminded of a recent essay I read by Mark Lord. In it, he rather bluntly reflects on a performance he attended: “I was bored because the play was written and designed and performed to please me.”

Later in the essay he reflects on makers of theater in general:

Our work is not good enough. Our work is not good enough because: we’re not even trying to do our best work…The theater of our time is an industry and the wonder it pursues is the wonder of its own survival. We allow others to determine the rules for our creation, We agree to a community standard of resources to make a performance that is inadequate.”

And these are reflections about a 1997 world…not even one that has suffered through 2008.

Coming from an arts organization located in Chicago, Redmoon, that has had to weather the bad times of the recession, I understand the need Lord describes–the need to spend a great deal of energy simply on survival. One method of survival that has worked for Chicago theaters are re-mounts of the hits. As Redmoon remounted The Cabinet, one of the company’s most successful shows, several other companies did the same: The House, Death and Harry Houdini, Lookingglass, AliceAs much as it is wonderful to have another chance to see these truly fantastic productions (which demonstrate risk taking and these theaters at their best), I sometimes wonder what new might have been created if companies did not have to spend energy on remounts as a part of survival?

Again, Mark Lord: “Our work is not good enough.”

According to economist Tyler Cowen, we will increasingly loose the chance for not being good enough AND will actually have to be great the first time around, without any second chances.


In an interview I heard last week on NPR, Cowen stated:

“Everything is rated. Everything will have a Yelp review. And if you’re a worker, there will be like credit scores…How reliable are you? How many jobs have you had?…there will be fewer second chances in this world and that’s what I think will be difficult…So, I think it will reward people who are disciplined early in their lives, and that will help a lot of people, but it also will harm some others.”

But, I admire Cowen’s optimism within this dark cloud–he speculates it will be easier for talented people to become rich:

“…people who are truly talented will become millionaires much more easily. So, I think we’ll move from a country where instead of talking about the one percent, it will be the 15 percent, for instance.”

In addition, Cowen observed that our environment will essentially demand that people be creative, and will even foster an atmosphere of creativity.

Sounds slightly good, right? And, perchance artists might increase our abilities to thrive if we take risks and throw out old models that are no longer working–as HBO did?

So, the good about this possible economic environment is that artists will be encouraged to take risks. Those risks might inspire a unique audience, which might build over time, but will be made up of those who are drawn to that artist’s, or group of artists’, particular talents…not a watered down, please the masses version of it. The bad is that an artist might only get one shot to take that risk (anyone hearing Eminem?).


BUT, they MIGHT be able to continue making exactly the art they want to make if that risk is successful–and support themselves from it. The alternative is to continue “surviving,” pleasing the masses, not making the art one wants to make and in that sense, failing anyway?

On the flip side, I’m not sure I’m too familiar with disciplined artists who don’t need opportunities to practice and fail. Although I’m excited to see what new models arise within this environment, I’m sad to think about the artists we’ll never get to encounter. Even Shakespeare had some stinkers.

One comment on “Don’t Please Everyone

  1. […] reading my last blog post, a peer came up to me in the hallway and said, “so what’s the new risk?” He […]

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