We went to see the Rolling Stones open their A Bigger Bang tour in Boston. It put to rest an event that’s haunted me for 16 years: Walking through the halls of my then-place of employment, a friend gleefully brandished his two tickets to the Stones’ Steel Wheels concert. I nearly burst into tears — I’d just bought four tickets to Sesame Street Live.
A Bigger Bang was, if you’re wondering, phenomenal but that’s not why I’m bringing up the subject. You’ll have to wait for that while I tell you about Larry Brody’s new book, Turning Points in Television. (I hope you appreciate me. What other IT column bases its content on the Rolling Stones and the history of television instead of XML and web services?)
Larry, a creative force in the television industry for several decades, wrote Turning Points in Television to be less a walk through memory lane than an insightful analysis of the history of an industry. (One of the more minor insights, given an overly kind mention, came from a column yours truly published some years back — that in most media businesses, you and I are neither customer nor consumer. We’re the product, sold to advertisers. The material we consume is not the product — it’s bait.)
The history of television is, sadly, the history of every industry. Founded in a burst of creative energy and fostered by periodic injections of brilliant innovation, it was run by the creative innovators. But only for awhile.
In the case of television, the writing was on the wall in 1978 when Larry met with Deanna Barkley, vice president of “long form development” at NBC. “What’ve you got that’s generic enough for NBC?” she asked. Now we have Survivor Guatemala. Having lived in Guatemala for six months, I feel comfortable asking this question: What’s the point? Just give the money to the millions of Mayans whose ancestors survived the Spaniards. What’s next — Survivor Mall of America?
An unsettling aspect of the industry’s evolution is the nature of the early innovators. They were characters, and that describes those toward the middle of the pack. Many of the most important were bullies, screamers, and head cases. Larry describes, for example, David Gerber — one of his mentors. Faced with a network market researcher who tried to change their hit series Police Story, “the Gerb” screamed, ranted, raved, swore, knocked his chair down and stormed out. Then he screamed, ranted, raved, swore at and threatened his writers (the threat: working at NBC). “In the TV business,” Larry explains, “that’s called being a mentor.”
Meanwhile, the business punditocracy is very fond of concepts like “Emotional Intelligence,” measured by EQ — an even more pseudoscientific measure than the IQ its proponents want to supplant. EQ is supposed to be a Good Thing to have. In most industries, EQ is, in fact, a valued trait. I wonder, though, whether that’s healthy. The Gerb’s EQ was un-measurably low. His value was immeasurable.
We’ve come to treasure a near-robotic persona in our business managers and leaders, and we’re in danger of extending this preference to those who do real work. The synonym for professionalism is, too often, blandness.
Which brings us back to the Stones. It occurred to me while pondering the value of EQ, individual skills, group process and so on (don’t worry — it was after the concert, not during) that not one member of the band is the best at what he does. Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler are better guitarists than Keith Richards and Ron Wood (and just about the entire rest of the guitar-playing world, too). Charlie Watts is a competent drummer, no more. Jagger’s singing voice is, by any objective standard, awful.
But together they’re a killer touring band and have been for more than forty years. A management theorist would probably use them as an object lesson in the value of teamwork over individual skills. Who knows — maybe Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood all have high emotional intelligence.
This management theorist thinks the point is different — that the Stones aren’t bland. They aren’t the most talented performers, but they’re among the most flamboyant, and you have to give a 62-year-old guy credit for running around on stage for two and a half hours without a break like, as someone once said, a rooster on acid.
I figure these guys have something more useful than being good at getting along — they get along with each other.
Or maybe it’s only rock and roll. But I like it.