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The Importance of Surprising the Audience

We focus a lot on expectations:  Brands need to live up to them.  True enough.

But there’s another side to that equation.  If lots of brands have similar expectations and everyone is living up to them,  you have satisfied expectations but you may not have one brand which stands out from the crowd. You may not have anything special worth talking about. You may not have something I, the consumer, looks forward to consuming again. You may not have a winner.

The potentially fatal undertow of delivering to expectation is boredom and sameness.  Once the audience is there – once they have granted you their most precious asset, their attention – what are you doing to keep them coming back to your brand?  Fulfilling expectation is not enough.  You also need surprise.

Consider TV.  Showtime’s Homeland swept the Emmy Awards earlier this year, including the category of Best Drama.

In a recent conversation on the KCRW radio show The Business, David Nevins, Showtime’s president talked about one key to Homeland’s success:  It bucks convention, it plays with expectation, and it injects a fair measure of surprise which sucks the audience in deeper:

If you can just surprise the audience, that’s what people are looking for. Television is predictable.  We have been watching so much television over the course of our lives, our narrative skills are unbelievably sophisticated.  You see the first scene of a show – you know exactly how that episode is going to end.  You’re watching a comedy, you see the situation in the room – you know exactly the jokes they’re going to tell. If you can just surprise the audience a little bit, they will reward you dramatically. I’m always asking what’s the expectation in this situation, and how do we subvert that expectation?

Would Homeland have been different on network TV?  Probably, said Nevins. In its original form the show was pitched with a more straightforward formula: One character would be more clearly a hero, the other a clearer villain.  But it was the messiness of the characters, their depth, their ambiguity, their surprising sympathy, that made the show and its characters more complicated and more satisfying.

That meant making the show less predictable, more surprising. More worth coming back for.

Consumers need simple reasons to come to a show – or a station.  And they have simple expectations they expect to be fulfilled.  But once those consumers are there you have to keep them.  And suddenly the rules are more complicated.

People don’t stay tuned in just because things are simple but because things are real – and real life is more textured, complicated, and engrossing.  That is why audiences respond to real people in morning shows talking about real things in a real way.

People don’t spread the word about how great a radio station is in this day and age simply because it plays great music – anybody and anything can now do that.  They do it because there’s something special that surprised and delighted them, and they are excited to share that surprise and delight with their friends because it makes them feel and look good.

Homeland isn’t just a good show, it’s a surprising show.  And those surprises help to make it a great show.

How great is your show?

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