In Magnite's latest episode of its TV100 series, MediaLink Vice-Chair Wenda Harris Millard sat down with Mike Reiss, the Emmy-award winning showrunner of “The Simpsons,” and Ross Martin, president of Known, to discuss why great creative endures.
Here are some key takeaways from their lively discussion and what to keep in mind if you want to create timeless content.
1. Create for yourself and make people feel something
Mike Reiss: Two weeks before “The Simpsons” came on the air, I asked the other writers, "How long do you think the show's going to last?" Every writer in the room said six weeks. The most confident man in the room was Sam Simon, one of the creators. He said, "I think it'll go 13 weeks, but don't worry. No one's going to see it. It won't hurt your career."
It's an ironic story, but it also shows why the show became a success. We thought nobody was going to watch it, so instead of making the kind of other shows we saw on TV, we made the kind of show we always wanted to see on TV. Now, it's a hit in 71 countries and the longest-running scripted program of all time, with 32 seasons.
Ross Martin: Great content comes down to one thing: making people feel something. It's like Elie Wiesel said, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference." Indifference is the enemy of any television producer or creator. They may hate you. They may love you. But if they do neither of those things, you're in trouble.
2. Never compromise quality
Martin: I learned this lesson best from two heroes that I got to know a little bit, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They know who they are and have the courage of their convictions. There were things they weren't willing to do. As a programmer, a producer and a marketer, I've learned very quickly that you should size up the values of whomever you're working with and make a quick decision about whether they align with your own values, or not.
Reiss: On “The Simpsons,” we stayed true to our values, and that's what resonated with people. I know we're not always great and every once in a while we put out a bad decade. But still, “The Simpsons” is highly rated on streaming and it doesn't fit the mold of other shows. In fact, I heard that if you watch one episode of “The Simpsons” you will watch 100 episodes, which is too many. But we're trying to make a good show one episode at a time.
Martin: Also, quality doesn't just mean creative value. It can mean production value. With technology today, TV has gotten a facelift. The production value is unbelievable. I think we'd be remiss not to point out how far the technology has come.
3. Don’t chase storytelling trends
Reiss: With everything being so serialized, the streamers can sometimes feel like tobacco companies—they're just trying to get you hooked. But great shows go beyond one storytelling trend like that. Make something good instead of something addictive. Binge-watching isn't going to be around forever. Your work should be able to stand on its own.
Martin: It's important that streaming doesn't just try to be TV. Don't just replicate what works now, because in the future there will be other ways of watching that replace how we watch today. Users will be their own heads of programming. They will have more control, and things will be simpler and easier to navigate. It'll be a lot easier for people to find exactly what they want and watch it without any boundaries.
Ultimately, while the way we consume TV programs has changed with evolving technology, one thing remains constant: great storytelling. Stories endure because they speak to something lasting and universal. As Ross shared in closing, "Just like the best brands in the world, great stories understand central human truths."