One of the saddest phrases in American business is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or its idiot bastard stepchild, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There is some truth that modeling what worked in the past is a path to continued success, but it should never be viewed as the only route.
The History Channel, now simply known as “History,” was known as The Hitler Channel when it first went on the air back in 1995. It was difficult to watch the channel back in those days without seeing grainy black and white footage of WWII. Their growth over the years is an excellent example of what can happen when you don’t do things the way they’ve always been done.
The hit show “Pawn Stars,” the network’s first reality show debuted in 2009. While the items brought in by customers are usually a piece of history, airing a show like this was groundbreaking for the formerly stodgy network. Before this they aired some questionable documentaries about UFO’s, the Kennedy Assassination, Armegeddon, etc. But Pawn Stars was the first regular original program. It was (and is) a ratings smash and paved the way for many other successful original programs.
The fact that a television network would push the boundaries of their format with a program like this is nothing short of amazing. It took vision, guts and great determination to add a show like Pawn Stars to their lineup. Once it was a hit, History decided to add more original programs like American Pickers, Swamp People and many more. Most have at least an oblique tie in to some aspect of history. And while some of their new original programming is questionable (Gods, Guns and Automobiles comes to mind), you have to applaud History’s courage and creativity. It will be interesting to see how they progress over the next few years.
It’s just as difficult to do original things in you own life. Along with all the hard work and risk, you will always be accosted by a gaggle of naysayers. How many times have we all been stifled by a teacher, family member or friend – or all of them?
I remember wanting to be the host of a TV kid’s show when I was in high school. I was an accomplished puppeteer, wrote and performed original music for the puppet shows I did at parties and events and even built my own complex puppets and puppet stage. Sadly, my high school guidance counselor told me that my aptitude scores showed that I should be a geologist.
The counselor was a single 40-something woman with an eternal expression as dour as Endora on “Bewitched.” She never married and had multiple graduate degrees that simply made her a highly educated douchebag as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to think about all the lives she screwed up. A freaking geologist?! Wanna see my rocks?
Granted, a kid’s show host isn’t the most stable of careers. But neither is a TV Shopping Host and I did pretty well with that. She convinced my parents that I should take 4 years of German (she called it the language of science?) and all sorts of science classes that prepared me for nothing in the real world. High school was hell. I hated most of the courses she made me take. The guidance counselor did teach me that anytime you go against traditional wisdom you will get flack from lots of people who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. I did run away for an entire year, but that’s a whole ‘nother bottle of whisky.
In my professional life, I was known for pushing the accepted boundaries. In advertising, I was always coming up with different ideas to promote our client’s products and services. Most of them worked extremely well. I even came up with a way to use puppets to promote products from some of the biggest companies in the country.
While at QVC, I proposed several ideas for different types of shows. They were dead set against my ideas for “The QVC Café” and “Jammin’ in the Kitchen.” They thought mixing music and cooking was a stupid idea and was definitely “not the way they had always done things.” I used the same technique on them that Desi Arnaz used on the banks to get financing for Desilu Studios. Desi sat in a banker’s office for weeks until the banker would have a meeting with him. His tenacity finally broke him down.
Like Desi, I wouldn’t let it go, I wouldn’t shut up about it. I scheduled meetings, wrote endless emails, I was a pitbull. My Desi-like persistence paid off. They finally agreed to air a show to shut me up.
The café show was some pretty amazing shopping TV. The set looked like a hip Manhattan bistro. It was successful but took a lot of company resources. Despite its high sales numbers, management killed it because the then CEO thought it was silly. We had the Broadway cast of Smoky Joe’s Café, Acoustic Alchemy, John Tesh and many other very interesting acts. They played at the open of the show as well as before and after breaks.
A few years later, under a different management team (God bless Barry Diller), I again proposed “Jammin’ in the Kitchen.” Less ambitious set-wise than the café, the show would use musicians to play between products. It still took a barrage of emails, proposals and meetings but they eventually agreed to air a show. It wound up being the highest grossing weekday cook program in company history and became a regular show. I even wrote and performed the show’s opening instrumental theme.
They made me book the musical guests and they would not pay the artists, expecting them to do it in return for promotional messages. I was still able to book everyone from blues legend Rory Block to the late Grammy winning guitarist Artie Traum along with some pretty incredible local musicians. I had even scheduled Arlo Guthrie and John Sebastian to perform. Unfortunately, a certain host complained that his was the premiere cook show and that “Jammin’” was taking away his viewers. WTF? They cancelled the show despite its high sales. Arlo and John never appeared.
Changing the status quo is never easy. We are all creatures of habit and cling to the familiar. Back in the 1800’s, buggy whips were one of the most successful businesses in the country. The advent of the horseless carriage killed off most of the those companies. But a few used their skills at leatherwork to make interiors for the first automobiles. They were viewed by many as traitors since their new line of work was helping to put an end to horse drawn transportation. But most of the new companies survived and thrived in the new automotive industry.
We can all cite many examples of people bucking current trends and succeeding because of it. Get ready for the sea of crap that you’ll have to swim across when you try to change things in your business or personal life. And don’t expect any support from your family. They are usually the worst when it comes to new ideas and change. I wish I had a tape recorder running when I told my mother I wanted to be a kid’s show host. Not the first or last time she called me an idiot and wished I could be like everyone else. My favorite quote from her was when I won my first major award in advertising. “Your brother has a real job. He’s a plumber.”
Don’t let the bastards get you down. If you have the desire, drive and determination to do something in a different way than it has ever been done, do it! You could change everything for the better. You could also fall flat on your face but the alternative of doing nothing and going with the flow is usually a lot scarier than that.
While I’ve never been a kid’s show host, I’m only 63. Who knows? The future is infinite as long as we approach it one finite task at a time. (Wonder if Popeye cartoons are still politically correct? Let’s see, a guy eats spinach and beats the snot out of someone who’s bothering his girlfriend. Yeah, that’ll fly in today’s world. Now, as for The Three Stooges…
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