Solving the mystery of the disappearing audience

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Yes. I am old enough to remember the first generation of Sesame Street shows. They were crude and not impressive in their production. But the kids still loved them. Even though the production was poorly lit, the sound was rough and some of the puppets were outright scary looking, it was a great start and they learned from it.

Even though my primary focus here is on the audio tech side of production, I have worked all over. Cameraman, lighting tech, stage manager, set construction, design and installation, etc. I have had my hands in most aspects of live event production as well at TV, theatre and film. Every type of studio and live production fascinated me and I jumped at opportunities to work with them.

The big Christmas show we produced in 2002 forced me to pull together almost every aspect of production I had worked in. Remember that story from The separation of tech and stage post? I couldn’t help but reference the Sesame Street crew in that one, and I am going to do it again.

Here’s the big point. If you are involved in production, on any level, Sesame Street is a great model.

Sure, it’s a kids show. So what? Pick any random person on the street and ask them if they know who Big Bird is. Ask about Ernie and Bert. A few generations can’t detach the word “grouch” from images of Oscar. People out there still laugh while counting because they must repeat each number, identify what they are counting and add “ah ha ha” behind it.

We were taught that this is the production model since we were kids. They know their stuff.

If you take the time to read through the Wikipedia version of their history, you will see an evolution. They started out with some amazing ideas that took years to realize. They researched every aspect of the show and adjusted the direction and content based on the results. They made massive efforts to figure out what every child in America would sit still and learn from. Their big purpose, was to create something that would hold a child’s attention long enough to teach them important ideas, to prepare them for school and life.

They had a defined purpose, and a work ethic that demanded they do it better every time.

What I have observed in most church and school productions is very different. I usually see something thrown together, fought over and quite forgettable. People will sit still for an hour to watch their own kid speak one line in a play. We will sit though poor performances out of obligation to our church. We are very forgiving of these events. We understand the budget, time and other obligations that might keep it from actually being good.

Do we really have to? Can’t we make the effort to do things right? At the point we understand truth, we are kinda required to make adjustments to accommodate it. Right? Once we understand the difference between a good show and a bad one, shouldn’t we change the way we do them? And, if there’s money involved, like buying a ticket, shouldn’t we have the right to expect it to be well done?

If you visit a museum, it’s full of things that have proven popular or significant over time. It’s stuff that most folks will pay to see or experience over and over. If you visit an art show, it’s an artist expressing themselves independently of anyone’s opinion. They create and set it out for you to see. The museum that features the worlds largest collection of used gum or an art show featuring the work of someone who can’t actually paint, isn’t going to pull in big crowds or money. If you want to do it professionally, do your homework. Make something memorable. Make an impact.

Sesame Street has been on TV, creating new episodes, for over 40 years. That is worth something. What are they doing that keeps attracting more viewers? What about a show like “The walking dead?” They have found a formula that works and their ratings prove it. What about broadway shows? What about the Vegas acts? What about classic movies we watch over and over? How much music do you have that you have memorized? What makes all that stuff successful? Figure that out.

Here’s a few of the tips for better shows.

Create a legitimate and fascinating storyline for your audience. If your script sucks or it’s hard to follow, change it. Don’t be afraid. Go ahead. Pick the stuff that pulls them into the show. Not the stuff that enables nap time.

Pick music that the audience will enjoy, not just stuff your mother likes. They aren’t paying you to be an artist. They are paying you to entertain them. Forget that part and you will be back waiting tables in no time.

Use the right professionals where and when you can. Don’t put a sound tech over lighting. Please. Don’t let a ten year old sit in a critical tech position and expect your timing and cues to happen. Don’t expect broadway level events with a crew of giggling teenagers in areas of responsibility. Generally, you will have to pay for the real professionals. In the words of Heath Ledger as the joker, “if you’re good at something, you don’t do it for free.”

Don’t be afraid of criticism. Seriously. If your plans and scripts require you to protect and explain every aspect, the audience isn’t going to sit through it voluntarily. Let people know what you want to happen. Listen to the obnoxious people when they comment. Sometimes they are the only ones being honest. Never be afraid to expose an idea. Until it sees daylight, nobody but you thinks it’s a good idea anyway. Better to find out your show will suck before you spend a thousand hours and mega dollars on it.

Be aware of who your audience is, and what keeps their attention. Talking heads have their place, granted. But, personally, if I am watching a show where someone talks for twenty minutes straight, they better be doing it while tight rope walking over lava. Don’t make me sit still and stare at someone when I am expecting a performance. I know a guy who has done TV for years and still doesn’t know why nobody tunes in to watch him talk for half an hour. Wake up, he’s done.

Practice, practice, practice. Your audience can tell what is thrown together and what has been properly rehearsed. Yes, magic happens and sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes things just fall into place. Sure. It can happen. If I offered you a $1 scratch off lottery ticket or a dollar, which would you take? One is guaranteed to be worth a dollar, one might be worth something. The odds are not in your favor. If it’s only a dollar we are gambling, sure, take the ticket. If it’s your rent money or a lottery ticket, then what? We don’t gamble with critical issues like time and money. Make the effort and rehearse. Don’t wish for magic, just make it happen.

Stop making excuses, just make the show enjoyable. I worked on an album project in 1998 with Ron Griffin and Larry Howard. There were some budget issues and someone attempted to cut some corners. Ron made a comment that stuck with me ever since. “We don’t get to add a disclaimer, explaining our budget, on this album. We can’t apologize to people because it doesn’t sound good and still expect them to pay for it.” He was telling everyone to do it right or do something else.

Since my spiritual gift appears to be tactlessness, I can say what everyone else is thinking. We are tired of of being expected to sit through bad productions. Stop being so artsy fartsy and overprotective of a bad show. Figure out what works and do that. Figure out what your crowd enjoys and do that. Don’t be a crazed control freak, accept some criticism and advice. If it sucks, own it and move on. Make the changes it needs. Do it better next time.

Do your stuff with excellence and the audience will show up. No excuses. have fun, make it enjoyable for them. Take the time to watch Sesame Street. Let them show you how it’s done.

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