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Storytelling

John de Mol - Full interview with Reality TV king

 

Often seen as the scourge of creativity, John De Mol, founder of Reality TV giants Endemol and Talpa and the creative visionary behind global megahits Big Brother, Fear Factor, Deal or No Deal and The Voice, builds a compelling case for the creative credentials of Reality TV. He helps us understand that great creativity lies in great human story telling, and that it doesn’t end at the concept stage, but is even more important throughout the minor details of the final craft with the litmus test being your audience, not your industry.

Transcript

Fergus:

It’s hard to find someone who has genuinely created something original.  Often we celebrate optimisers who have discovered something, refined it and made it much better. But that’s why John de Mol is to me, the purest example of original creative disruption. From co-founding his media giants Endemol and then Talpa, he has brought reality TV to the global phenomenon that we know today, redefining the TV industry and in the process stamped his mark on popular culture for the last 15 years. He is the creative mind behind global hits such as Big Brother, Fear Factor, Deal or No Deal and the recently Emmy awarded The Voice.  He is brave, courageous, creative, dedicated and focused and most importantly relentlessly original. He often faces severe criticism, he once said you could learn more from Big Brother than a book. And when he was labeled the King of Trash TV, he said “I don’t really care, because I care about my audience not about the critics”.  And that’s why I’m fascinated to talk to John about how he used his creativity to redefine the TV industry as we know it today and for the future.

John, thanks so much for speaking to us.  I wanted to first chat to you about how you’ve seen the entertainment world change since you and your contemporaries have brought reality TV to the world.

John:

Well actually in 2000 or 1999 when we launched Big Brother we sort of created a whole new genre which wasn’t there.  I think Big Brother was the forerunner to hundreds and hundreds of new formats for this reality genre.

Fergus:

How did the industry react….

John:

As usual when there is something really new reactions are always careful. Especially in the bigger markets.  I thank God that I live and work in a country which is much more flexible and open to changes than bigger markets.  But even in Holland, they looked at it like, “ooh, what is this? Is this going to work?”

Fergus:

What were they anxious about?

John:

They were anxious about the health of the people, the critics, advertisers – would they be willing to put ads in the programme – which in the beginning they didn’t. Then suddenly, when Big Brother was on air in Holland, after 2 or 3 weeks, the whole attitude towards the programme changed from negative to extremely positive.

Fergus:

Why was that, do you think?

John:

I think the preoccupied opinion of a show before anyone has even seen one second of it was so strong, that after a few weeks everyone was falling over themselves to adjust their opinion and to admit that Big Brother was great television.

Fergus:

Were there moments when you thought you were going to fail?  Because you were starting something so new, not just optimizing something.

John:

No.  My doubts, if any, were more in the technical area.  It was the first time in the history of television that we had created a TV show where 120 cameras were individually taping a lot of material, how do we store it, how do we edit it…

Fergus:

And of course there was a social issue as well.  I remember once you saying, “we have to be careful otherwise we’ll be like God”.

John:

Actually if you look back at the first series of Big Brother, to be honest it was so boring! Because we were so careful.  Because we were so afraid to hurt people, to harm people, that basically we watched 100 days of people sitting on a couch talking about baking bread.

Fergus:

Can you remember where the creative idea first came from?  Did someone walk in one day – or was it you that thought, let’s try a real-life experiment?

John:

I must say it was a co-incidence. There was a guy in my company who said he’d just read an article in a plane about an American project, Biosphere 2.  And he was intrigued about it because it was about a group of people who were put in a large glass bowl, and they had to grow their own vegetables, and live together….

Fergus:

It was a TV show?

John:

No. It was a scientific experiment.  And I was intrigued and kept on asking more and more and more.  And that was the start of Big Brother.

Fergus:

You know to me you do represent the most disruptive creative mind, and I love that, it’s why we do this show. Was this something that was inside you from an early age?  Were you breaking rules and doing things different from a young age or is that something you have found as you got older?

John:

I started working in television, for a public broadcaster – state television actually – and that’s where I caught the disease. Because once you start to love it and love making television, it gets you.  I remember very well when one of my first shows – I was a production assistant – it was a Miss Holland selection – a beauty pageant.  And two days after the show I was sitting in a restaurant and the table next to me was talking about that show. And what I liked was that no-one knew I was involved in any way, but the fact that television has that impact on people.  That you bring for a few hours a day some entertainment to people, it really got to me, and that is my drive.

Fergus:

Now, Holland is a pretty fascinating country.  It’s small, it’s central in Europe, but it has had an impact on the world, probably bigger than its size would deserve. And it’s not just conquering the sea and trading goods around the planet, but the entertainment world has had so many great Dutch producers and TV shows. What is it about this small but wonderful country that does that?

John:

I think there are different reasons.

Firstly, when you live in a small country you live in a small market, which means if you want to achieve something you need to look over the borders.  If you were born American, you were born in such a huge market you don’t need another market to become very successful.  I have talked to American producers, very successful, who have never left the country.  And you don’t have to if you don’t want to.  If you live in a country of – in those days – 12 million people, and you get into your car and drive for one hour, you will hear a different language.  You learn to think more internationally, and I think that is the big advantage of the Dutch entrepreneurial culture, is that we have learnt to make our money over the borders, and don’t think local.  And secondly the culture in this country is very internationally orientated.

Fergus:

Variety Magazine once called Endemol the ‘unscripted factory’. Which I think is a bit harsh – it had negative connotations when I read it. Do you think that reality TV – or unscripted TV – gets the respect it deserves?

John:

My first response is that I don’t care.  And secondly, it depends who you ask?

Because millions and millions of people are watching and enjoying it.  And the judgment of that has to do with the generation gap. It’s the same discussion as in the 1950’s, when people disapproved of Elvis Presley because he was too sexy, and he was shaking his legs and whatever.  And young people loved it. And if an older journalist writes an article that he doesn’t like the show, for me it’s more of a reason to push harder than to stop.

Fergus:

What do you think it is about reality TV – why do so many people love it?

John:

You’ve got so much space to develop new ideas, because it’s a new genre there hasn’t been a lot done yet in the genre.  The possibilities are endless, and I’m afraid for the critics, I have bad news for you, this genre is here forever.

Fergus:

You did a really interesting crowd sourcing project – Talpa Creative.

John:

The idea behind it is that everyone can have a great idea for a TV show.  When we opened the doors for everybody, and said if you have an idea bring it to us and we’ll see if we can do something with it, I underestimated a little bit the response.  Because in a few weeks we had something like 20,000 responses.

Fergus:

Were you surprised and delighted, or disappointed with what you found.

John:

I was surprised and disappointed at the same time.  Because at the end of the day it didn’t bring us that thing that we were looking for, which was the next big thing.

Fergus:

Why was that?

John:

I don’t know. Probably because it is more difficult than I thought it was.

Fergus:

And for people who have no experience in the industry, I’m sure you saw lots of naivety in the creative ideas.

John:

Yes but that’s not a problem, we are used to that and used to recognizing good ideas, knowing we still have a lot of work to do to finish it into a format. Because there’s a big difference between an idea and a format.  An idea can be 4 lines.  A format is a book that a producer goes to the studio with.  To make the show, every detail, every element should be thought of.  A good format, it can never happen in a studio or wherever you are shooting, that something happens and everyone says, we didn’t think of this what are we going to do.

Fergus:

In the creative industry from an advertising perspective we sometimes forget that.  We put so much primacy in the power of an idea, and the craft and the thinking it through is equally demanding. Now your relationship with literature and books is quite intriguing.  Of course Big Brother is based on Orwell’s seminal piece of work, ‘1984’.  And your upcoming show, Utopia, is based on Thomas Moores piece of literature.  Is this intentional? Is this accidental?

John:

It’s a happy accident.  Once we had created the format Big Brother, three months before going on-air, it was called The Golden Cage. And someone said, hey why don’t we call it Big Brother, because in Orwell’s ‘1984’ they are describing a world where cameras are watching people and they called it Big Brother.  Same with ‘Utopia’. The period we are all living in right now, people are worried about the future, they are worried about financial things, people are unhappy about the way things are structured, and that feeling, that attitude, made me decide to come up with a format like ‘Utopia’ and give 15 people the opportunity, ok you’re not happy with the way things are right now, we give you the chance to start all over again. And these people can start a new community, a new society with your own rules, your own regulations and see if you can make a better one.

Fergus:

As a business, when you go through the creative process do you bury yourself deep in research, deep in data, to understand common human trends or is it intuitive?

John:

It is not a mathematical project.  You cannot say if I do this and you do this, the outcome will be this – it is not a science.

Fergus:

That’s a fantastic insight into the creative development. You’re saying at some point you have to take a leap of faith.

John:

And you have a little bit of experience, a little bit of gut feeling, but that’s maximum 50%.

Fergus:

Do you think it’s still a broadcast medium?

John:

Yes.  Both on a social as well as a business level.  It’s still the cheapest way for an advertiser to reach a big audience.  My main business is free-to-air television, and I still believe that for a lot of hours a week people just want to be entertained.  They want to sit on a couch with a cup of coffee and enjoy a nice show, without pushing buttons or being interactive, or having second screens.  But I also tend to believe that free-to-air television, that comes into everybody’s house, is a sort of social, cultural connection.

Fergus:

How do you stay plugged in to how people are reacting?

John:

I try to do that by consuming as much information as possible about what’s happening in the world. Because I do believe that even in entertainment it is a reflection of what’s really happening in the world.

Fergus:

In your opinion, and in your experience, what do you think it is in the DNA of creativity that allows people to be creative?  What have you discovered in your amazing career that is the essence to releasing people’s own creativity?

John:

Don’t be afraid to fail.  My people here – I try to teach, say everything aloud that you think and don’t be afraid to say something stupid because with creativity you cannot say stupid things. Be open for everything. Try to be original.  I think that creativity, and I know that a lot of people disagree with me, and the way we do it here, is 80% perspiration and 20% inspiration. It’s hard work.  It’s a systematic way of looking at an idea, of bringing it further and also deciding after 4 months of work that it’s not good enough and throw it away.

Fergus:

In our conversation you have already shared a lot with us.  And particularly for me I took out your very curious mind but also your ability to take a concept and drive it all the way through to excellence in execution.  And sometimes creatively, we forget that creativity goes all the way through the process, and that’s why you have been able to disrupt the entire entertainment industry. Thank you so much John, it was a pleasure to spend time with you.

 

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