Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wibbly-wobbly, Returny-wurny | Lessons on Social Media from Doctor Who

In 1963 a children's show was created in the UK. It was meant to be an educational show, a show that would transport its audience through time to the past to witness the Aztecs or Ancient Rome. It was marginally successful until someone decided that while the characters were traveling through Time, they could also be travelling through Space. The show, Doctor Who, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and is more popular than ever. But it wasn't a smooth ride at all.

For the first years of its life, the show was popular with children (and their adults) as a sci-fi show, with evil baddies, ambiguous morality lessons and a charismatic, mercurial lead, The Doctor. In the 1980s the BBC leadership was absolutely dedicated to killing the show, but fan pressure - now global through Public Television support for the show in America and Australia - brought it back from the grave, for a while, until the show was once again cancelled after the 7th Doctor played his last spoon....

...Only Doctor Who didn't die. Bizarrely, it was picked up by an American television network, which of course focused on all the wrong things, and annoyed the British fans no end ("The American Movie" is how the 8th Doctor's tenure is known among fans.) But it did something unheard of. 40 years old and the show hadn't died. Like a Monty Python character, it kept reassuring us "It wasn't dead yet." And fandom hadn't moved on. With a body of episodes in the hundreds, still showing on Public TV, then reluctantly released by the BBC on VHS, the DVD, fandom wasn't dead.

And neither was the show. In 2005 the famous blue box known as the TARDIS landed once again in the UK and it was alive, again. The "new" Doctor Who, which picked up with the 9th Doctor and has now made it to the 11th is more popular, more global  - and more financially lucrative than ever before.

So, what are the lessons we can learn from this story?

Return on Time - Perseverance isn't overrated

In the days before Venture Capital and Y Combinator, sometimes all you had to rely on was Time. Having a good idea five years too early can gut a company. But Apple proves the point - when a good idea takes time, perseverance, passion and a soupcon of delusional belief that you're right, playing the long game can lead to success.

Return on Investment - Throwing money at the problem works too

When the BBC demanded better ratings for the 7th Doctor, and they were competing with Star Trek: Next Generation for share of the TV Sci-fi watching audience, the creators of Doctor Who were in a bind. They scraped up more money and put on the most sophisticated show their budget would allow. In comparison with earlier seasons it was fantastic (despite that, the BBC was grumpy again, and they killed it anyway.) In 2005, the showrunners pulled out the stops and the re-launch of this iconic show was as good as anything else on TV. No plywood hallways, no two-set shows. Doctor Who was a big kid now. When you've strained to the edge of what you can do with Time, Investment pushes you to the next  level.

Return on Social is Wibbly-wobbly, Returny-wurny

The 10th Doctor famously stated, "Time is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey." If there is a single lesson we can grok from The Doctor and his travels through our airspace and time, it's that Return on Social isn't a matter of simple eyeball formulas or likes or shares. In the days before the Internet, Doctor Who fandom created fanzines, wrote fiction, gathered together with friends on Saturday night to watch the show on Public Television, went to conventions to meet the actors. It has always been a social product. DW fandom were early adapters of online technology, expanding their contacts in fandom globally. When the new show launched, fandom was all ready for it. The network was built, ready and waiting. Virality wasn't an accident, it was 40 years in the making. And that is why the new show is popular. BBC and BBC America have made it more accessible, but the Internet does the rest.

Return on Social means a little push here, a nudge there, circle back and start again. When the formula doesn't work exactly as planned, passion and engagement can carry the project along. Superb execution pushes the boundaries and then back to the beginning yet again. Social is wibbly-wobbly, but if Doctor Who teaches us anything, it's that it can absolutely be returny-wurny.
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