Top of a Massive Hill

A brutal ocean of failure

Nice shirt, but how does he break into television?

Nice shirt, but how does he break into television?

I once had aspirations to write a drama for TV, bought Final Draft and got started. And then realised I was being stupid.

If I really wanted to write shouldn’t I be writing for the local theatre company?  Or just for the pleasure of writing?  Or wouldn’t I enter writing competitions, or perhaps start a book and take it from there?  I mean, this person did it.  And so did this one (and we share genes and everything).


So that’s why it never happened.

Most performers start small and work up.  I remember Robert Webb giving out flyers in Edinburgh in the early noughties for early Mitchell and Webb productions – they didn’t swan into TV success but served a proper apprenticeship.  It’s a market that sorts out the special people from everyone else.

It’s brutal.

And not just in TV.   In the last few months I’ve enjoyed the Canadian singer Haley Bonar at the Lexington, the Keston Cobblers Club at Dingwalls, and Australian singer Washington in a church near King’s Cross.   Three brilliant performers, performing to small audiences for around ten notes each despite years of producing wonderful music and busting their guts.

It’s good to hear music in small venues, but the feet of the children of musicians need to be shod.

And there’s nothing particular about the music industry or TV. Look at films.  A fraction of planned films get made, a fraction of these get released in cinemas, and most of these are met by a chorus of indifference.  Did you see God Help the Girl?  Neither did I.

The most successful people – musicians, comedians, writers are standing on a mountain of people with as much talent, or as much luck, or as much stamina as they do, but not all three.

And they are standing on another pile of people who have none of those things, but may be in the queue for X Factor auditions.  Or writing blogs.


Successes are a golden pea of success atop a mattress of failure.  As Clay Shirky once said about something else, a tiny archipelago of success in an ocean of failure.

Television: It doesn’t do small or cheap

Television has always been different.  You can’t get started at the bottom.  To create TV with any success you’ve always needed to pass three thresholds:

Programmes can’t be made without a chunk of money

They won’t get distribution without a channel.

And they won’t be viewed if they’re no good.

That’s the minimum.  Even a decent programme can struggle.

Until channel numbers expanded, the pool of people creating TV programmes was minute. Imagine the talent in the 1980s that never got a break. You’ve heard of the Long Tail: there was a time when this didn’t exist on TV. But it still feels impenetrable, in a way that must be upsetting to the ambitious.

Fed up with Coldplay? You write some songs, pick up a guitar and hire a venue.

Narked by the success of Michael McIntyre?  You write some jokes and brave an open mic spot.

Talent, tick.  Spontaneity, tick.  Needed, one barn

Talent, tick.
Spontaneity, tick.
Needed, one barn

Jealous of the National Theatre?  You put on a show, right now, here, in the barn.

Actually, these aren’t bad approaches for TV too, if you’re good.  So how does the ambitious creative gun-slinger respond to the brutal mathematics of TV and its dominance of popular culture?  One option is to work through the 5 stages we go through in a break-up.

DenialTV isn’t all that anyway.  I don’t watch and neither do my friends/ children.

AngerI’ve chucked out my TV.  It’s all shit and mass produced rubbish an’ that.

There are three more, but let’s draw a veil over depression, guilt, and acceptance because they’re upsetting.

Or, like the kids in Fame, they knuckle down, hone their skills and hope for a break.  Which is why it is so important that talented people from ethnic minorities, or poor people who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, or older people, don’t feel shut out of the business and it becomes a proper meritocracy.

Commissioners are desperate for quality programmes at lower prices, as audiences fragment and uncertain finances lower their budgets. But still, quality TV costs money.

But not quality content. You can make that for nothing.  So the rise of internet stars is an obvious boon to the industry, because it democratises the process, opening up new voices.  I may resent the monopoly dominance of YouTube, or the claims that UGC or online video will put TV out of business.  But these reservations aside, it’s a great thing. Anyone really can create something and upload it.  Suddenly the open meritocracy that TV has always needed is available.

Let the market decide what is good.

But there’s a caveat, and a problem

The Caveat

The mistake people make is to imagine that the YouTube vloggers and other content is the same as television.  The singers I mentioned earlier wouldn’t work at Wembley Stadium or the O2.  Not without a totally different show, restyled to fit the venue.  It’s a different performance and a different set of skills.  A YouTube vlogger is about creating an intimate relationship, and an illusion of it being one on one.  It wouldn’t attract a critical mass at a particular moment in the way that TV requires.

Online is a great place to discover talent and nurture skills, but the content is an uneasy fit with anything requiring an appointment to view, or for watching together.

The Problem

We might worry about the also-rans from the X Factor, doomed to a life of might-have-beens.  The market is cruel, but quick, if they’re lucky. Pity the talented musician unable to give up a micro-career and cast adrift in their 30s.

And TV might not have been democratic, but it didn’t sustain people in a fantasy.  But now look. How many people, tempted by the possibility of being on TV, will waste their lives meandering around the lower reaches of video waiting for that break that doesn’t come, sustained by views, likes and tweets that won’t pay the bills.

Will Self nailed it – indulging talentless hipsters, (or even somewhat-talented people who don’t aspire to hipster-status) may not be doing them any favours, and will simply encourage others.

the web has massively enlarged the numbers who style themselves as “artistic”, as well as increased the duration of their futile aspiration. In the kidult dickhead milieu, it’s now quite possible to encounter fortysomethings with weird facial hair, wearing shorts and still resolutely believing that their career is about to take off.

And in a way I suppose they’re right, because the totalising capability of dickheads + web = an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavour.

Will Self: he is so very right

Will Self: he is so very right

When we look at the success of a generation of vloggers, attracting significant audiences without any of the costs or distribution issues for TV, it might seem like a brand new model.  But the online market will be just as brutal as the music one  – a tiny isthmus of success, in a foaming ocean of failure.







Haley Bonar: Silver Zephyrs.  (Eat For Free is even better)

The Kestons…