One of the things that has really stood out in children’s shows over the last ten years is the industry’s search for the elusive next Dora, the next Spongebob. I’ve mentioned this here before. For me, well, neither Dora nor Spongebob were the next anything. That’s a big part of what made them special.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a really interesting discussion with some people more in the licensing end of things. They were telling me about how buyers choose products, how they end up on the shelves and the boy/girl rules that go with all that – buyers who, by all accounts, file shows and characters into very simple categories that mean they will either work or not work in the marketplace. There are years of market research so it’s a pretty exact science. All very interesting stuff and reminiscent of discussions I had with the distributors of Fluffy Gardens.
In this conversation, Peppa Pig came up as an exception.
It’s a show that, apparently, licensees would not have bought. This is something I’ve heard before too. They wouldn’t have seen the success coming. Girl main character, even coloured pink (well, she is a pig) and it broke out well beyond the limited perception of what a girl’s property is. It was a surprise. At least, for the licensing experts. And now it’s a massive success.
And I couldn’t help but think, yet again, of the failed search for the next Dora.
So is it really that Peppa Pig is an exception? An anomaly? A mistake in the market?
Or is it more likely that the show is excellent, funny, speaks to children in a way they totally understand regardless of gender and children want more of that, be it in toy form, book form or whatever? Is it more likely that the science is flawed?
I honestly don’t know. Being perfectly truthful, the licensing end of things is not somewhere I go. So I’m no expert. I’d have to bow to the experience of those in that area.
But here’s something I think is relevant to all areas of business, creativity, even just everyday life:
There are exceptions to rules. But when following the rules leads to few results of value and the big successes seem to be the exceptions, I’d guess it’s more likely just that the rules are wrong. ‘Try, try again’ only works if you’re doing it right.
I remember being a child and being totally amazed seeing a man lie in a bed of nails on television. That can’t be real, I thought. They’re fake nails. But then, if they’re fake, why aren’t they bending or breaking under his weight? But if they’re real, why aren’t they going right through him?!
I know now, of course, that the weight distribution means that this nails can support a man without putting so much pressure on one nail that it would pierce the skin. Still, that’s amazing in its own way.
Somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago I was in a job interview. “Yes, of course,” I lied, to the question of whether I am a ‘team player’. I wondered if he’d see through me. The truth is, I do things my own way. I feel I’m at my best when not working with the systems of others but, instead, creating systems that work for me and the best interests of whatever project I am working on. So I have never seen myself as a team player.
Just me, my projects and the audience.
When you really care about what you do, and I do, the pressure can be immense. Every problem hurts. Every setback becomes a sleepless night. Every person who doesn’t share your vision becomes a potential threat. Every choice is a worry - am I doing the right thing? What happens if this all goes wrong? Being perfectly honest, it can break you down. I could be too much for one person to take on, especially if that person hasn’t had a break in a long time.
It’s like you’re a single nail and you’re trying to support a massive weight. If you don’t really have that strength, you’ll bend or break. If you do, you’ll pierce that weight and it will come down on top of you.
I’ve been feeling that lately.
But then I look around me. I see top creative talent working with me to create some amazing artwork. I see someone giving up their time to scour the country (and internet) for the best voice talent. I see a composer taking hours between a tour schedule to create beautiful, fun music. I see a producer putting all his faith in us and looking for creative and innovative ways of making it all happen. I see a broadcaster giving all they can to help it all come together. Everywhere I look, I see more and more people offering to help and no end of words of support and encouragement.
And I realise, it’s not me, one nail, and this massive weight. And it’s not even that these people are supporting me – reinforcing that single nail wouldn’t affect the outcome. It’s that each one of those people is a nail, just like me.
We are a bed of nails.
I am just one nail among many and, together, we’re supporting a man lying comfortably on top. In doing so, we’ll amaze an audience! And it turns out I am a team player after all.
To my fellow nails, I appreciate each and every one of you.
When it’s all getting too difficult, it’s worth taking a look not up at that weight you’re supporting, but around you. Because, like me, you may find you’re not alone. You’re a bed of nails, whether you planned it or not.
Everyone who plays games knows Duke Nukem 3D. A game where you blast aliens, with huge guns, gore and all-round mayhem. No, not much we can learn from that but the story of Duke Nukem didn’t end there.
The sequel, Duke Nukem Forever, was announced in April 1997.
In the years that followed, the title was highly anticipated. Then, as time went on, a little less anticipated. Until the game became a running joke. Well, it came out finally on Friday. 14 years later.
And I’m not sure anybody really cares. It’s really just a curiosity at this stage. As such, its sales may not end up being all that terrible. But it’s not how it was meant to be. It’s not the smash of hype and controversy that I’m sure they were planning for in the late ’90s.
Steve Jobs, of Apple, Antennagate and more, is quoted as saying, “real artists ship”.
You can spend your life making the most amazing thing ever and it doesn’t matter a damn if you don’t get it out there. And you have to get it out there when people still care. My industry has no shortage of artists. But far fewer people who ship. Even I have drawers full of projects that just lost momentum because they didn’t get out there in time.
Those projects will never matter.
So, when working on anything, it’s important to bear in mind the fate of Duke Nukem Forever, a once highly anticipated game.
My latest article with Ireland’s parenting site for fathers, dad.ie, is up here. It’s about princesses, pink and role models for our little girls.
I created and wrote the first series of Fluffy Gardens before I became a parent. I was asked recently if there is anything I would have done differently had I already been a parent, having more first-hand experience with children.
The truth is, yes, I would have done some things differently.
Even though I aimed for a completely safe, warm, good show built on positive values, and I totally understood that children learn from television, seeing that direct effect every day over a long period of time does make a difference. It changes things when you can’t give the children back!
I’m not saying it’s essential. But, for me, it made a difference.
And one thing having my girls really brought home is how much children can model their behaviour, mannerisms, speech patterns and more on what they see on television. Some of their understanding of what they can and can’t do in life comes from entertainment. Sure, it comes from many other places too but that’s where it gets difficult. That’s where people think, well, television didn’t affect me. But is it more just that the influences are so mixed that it’s hard to pick out exactly what effect TV actually had?
Every character in a show, mine or anyone else’s, can be a role model.
Now, I’m not saying every character should be a role model. That would likely make for some very dull television. But, still, it is important to understand that every character can be a role model, whether we like it or not. Some of Dora the Explorer’s research revealed that a sub-section of their male audience wanted to be Swiper the Fox when they grow up. You can be sure his creators didn’t intend that. But it happens.
Every character can be a role model.
And that’s something we have to accept and take on. We are responsible for what we create.
While I don’t think that should stifle our creativity, I think it’s always something worth keeping in mind. There’s some really good news here for show creators and writers – there are some voids in our modern role models. Some places where we could do with more positive role models for different sections of our community. Why is this good news? Because looking to fill those voids can lead to whole new fresh and interesting characters.
After all, if there’s no void there, someone else is already doing it.