With a house call from Hugh Laurie leading the parade, entertainment’s top producers and digital managers converged to talk to the future of TV
The two-day INTV conference concluded yesterday in Jerusalem with the poignant words of Hugh Laurie of Dr. House fame giving insight into the spy genre and the difficulty of creating good fiction in an age where our reality is no longer unbelievable.
“I think the frightening thing about the world is that everything is precisely as it seems. It’s fucking mayhem,” Laurie said to a packed auditorium at the 170-year-old Jerusalem YMCA across from the famed King David Hotel overlooking the Old City.
It was the most well-attended part of the event for sure, but the thoughts put out by producers, directors, innovators, and execs covered a number of critical issues for people both making entertainment and distributing it.
Laurie’s frank comment capped the second day of the event, which gave a lot of attention to the issue of false information and fake news being distributed across social networks.
“That’s the first time in the history of media that mainstream media created less engagement than fake news,” said Danny Peled, managing partner of the KDC Media Fund. KDC is sponsored by Keshet, the prominent Israeli media company that was behind the conference.
“You’re probably asking yourselves, ‘Why now?’ The main reason is because of this guy,” pointing to a photo of Mark Zuckerberg strutting a Silicon Valley stage. He said it “might be a tragic decision” what Facebook did implementing its “Friends before Publishers” policy in June 2016 that prioritized friends’ article posts without consideration to how reliable they were. That amplified the growing problem of fake news, debatably influencing public perception of the major candidates during the presidential election and thereby influencing its outcome.
He pointed to the fake story about a Yoko Ono affair with Hillary Clinton as a prime example of findings from a Stanford study that reported 90% of Americans cannot tell the difference between real and fake stories. But most importantly is that trust in news sources is lower than ever, down to 32 percent according to a Gallup poll late last year.
If getting your message to readers is made more difficult by now having to compete with fiction masking as non-fiction, the fiction business itself is also facing a crowded field of contenders.
Scott Reich, SVP of programming for Fullscreen Media, said that it was hard keeping people loyal to any particular media brand or TV show. With the options multiplying to get your fill of TV, Reich believes that the role of the story has become more important. Younger viewers are not automatons as much as Generation Y might like to think he points out, noting that instead the way to hook viewers is with a fleshed-out character that the audience wants to follow.
Familiarity was far more important in previous generations because there were fewer options. The cliche channel changing of the 90s, best illustrated by the way (spoiler) The Truman Show ends, has amplified.
Reich was sitting next to Adi Soffer-Teeni, Facebook’s head of operations in Israel. Besides touching on the social media habits of teenagers these days, she stressed that today’s entrepreneurs and anyone in their 30s or 40s should not try too hard to cast today’s youth in a different light than their own generation.
“When I think about my daughter and myself today, we are a lot more similar than I was with my mom,” Soffer-Teeni declared, itself an impactful comment for the audience.
Referring to media, leisure, and habits, she pleaded with the audience to consider that the main difference with Generation Z is that they are being born into new technologies that Generation Y is adopting, but previous generations did not adapt to or have the chance to adopt.
“Some talk about Generation Z as Generation Y on steroids. I think in many cases it’s true but also not.”
Constant consumption a goal of modern media
Consumption is indeed growing for Gen Zed, but what Soffer-Teeni thought was more important was how deeply they were tying themselves into different media.
“The living room is changing mainly because we’ve invited so many more people to watch with us,” going on to say she and the rest of her company tallied over 60 million people talking about the Super Bowl on Facebook during the game last month as well as 200 million different pieces of media.
“The depth of the consumption, the layers being created, with a lot of engagement and discussion around it, is very different today.”
She talked up the possibility of building a full sequence of media that is algorithmically customized for every user in order to keep them engaged, similar to YouTube’s automatic play of new videos and a similar feature on Facebook’s mobile app.
“The main thing I think is we want that sequence to be very personalized. The better tech, AI and algorithms we will be able to create a sequence of media that will be very personal.”
Creating fiction in an unbelievable world
As much as the conference was playing up new entertainment and ways to push it, Hugh Laurie’s appearance was as much about promoting his series The Night Manager as it was a chance for him to demonstrate he wasn’t just a brilliant fictional doctor, but a pretty articulate British actor.
“My worry for the future of the genre . . . is essentially that all spy stories – in fact all stories – depend upon at least beginning from a position of stability or normality. That’s what a story is. You have a normal situation, you depart from it, then you return at the end with an altered normality.”
“And now,” he said half-chuckling, speaking somewhat stupified, “I just don’t know where is the sort of stable veneer upon which great conspiracies can happen? Every hour that we watch CNN was a ‘pitch me’ scene for a TV show five years ago.”
Now, up is down and orange is the new black (that’s a political reference). Laurie directly referenced deployments of new missile defense systems and wars of words between China and the US make reality out to be a geopolitical thriller.
Stephen Garrett, executive producer for The Night Manager and also sitting on the closing panel with Laurie, chimed in that their show and Laurie’s shady character, in particular, were actually relevant in our current state of affairs.
He facetiously argued to the audience that Laurie’s character could not possibly relate to modern politics.
“His character we could describe him as an extraordinarily wealthy man. It’s unclear how he made his money. He doesn’t file tax returns. He has a passing familiarity with the truth and lives in a very big house by the sea. There is absolutely no connection whatsoever.”