CONCLUSION: Listening With Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink
|A reader, Madeline McGeeney, makes the following--and I think valid--criticism:
"I think your book is really wonderful, and I read it--and continue to--with earnest. I feel that it validates a form of decision-making that is often referred to as "intuitive"--but in a way that casts an unnecessarily supernatural light on it. My understanding of your explanation is that it is really just quick and efficient processing of relevant data; and this confirms what I have always--forgive me--intuitively felt to be true. But here is my question: did you observe, or did anyone point out to you, the dearth of women "role models" in the book? It would be one thing if you were speaking on a topic in which men and women sort of have equal participation in but my feeling is that women overwhelmingly out-intuit men on a daily basis, albeit in much more mundane ways than your examples illustrate. I think women who can converse easily with each other, with men, with children, do so in part because they are excellent at perceiving the most relevant emotional information and adapting their behavior and speech accordingly. I think that any dime-store psychic--the majority of which, from observation, are women--tap into the very talent you write about: eading people moment by moment and "knowing" seemingly very personal things about them based, not on a supernatural ability, but by tuning into the relevant data in front of them.
Let's look at compassion for a minute. Generally I think you'd agree that there is something to the generalization that women appear to be the more compassionate gender, most likely b/c biology requires that they be so as to ensure the survival of high-investment offspring. But then lets look at what is compassion. In my mind, it is the tuning into what you and the other person have in common so that a connection can be formed. That requires a lot of editing out of qualities that you and the other individual do NOT have in common. The Dalai Lama--a modern day representative of compassionate living to my mind--says that he never feels like he meets a stranger because he always looks for the commonality between himself and anyone he meets. That way, he always feels like he is meeting an old friend. Surely he is doing a lot of editing in that process (and yes, I've noted that I'm defending my position by providing an example of a man! But then we'd have to explore why men who are this way are exhorted role models to the world while women are...daycare workers. Another discussion...)
This aspect of your book--the fact that it was dominated by male examples of a phenomenon that I think comes quite naturally to women--really bothered me. I see this book as a wonderful opportunity to validate this kind of thinking--intuitive thinking--and therefore to validate a mode of thinking that may even be more natural--or more nurtured--in women than in men. As it is, women get marginalized in western culture in part because of the stereotype that women "feel" in situations while men "think"; or that they are less rational than men, less thorough perhaps in their analyses of something. And in this fascinating book, you have presented an opportunity to dismantle the value of exhaustive analysis over "intuition" but we are given almost exclusively (up to page 146 anyway) examples of men! More men for all of us to admire!"
The best account of the Conant story is by her husband, William Osborne, "You Sound like a Ladies Orchestra." It is available on their website.
Another reader, chastises me--quite properly--for talking about the German musical tradition when I really meant the Austrian musical tradition:
"Let me please draw your attention to a point mentioned on page 246 where you talk about Germany - and actually mean Austria. We Austrians are pretty sensitive to this subject because the argument that Austrians and Germans belong the same "great German nation" comes from the darkest part of our history.
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra comes from the Austrian capital Vienna and has never been part of Germany. What is true is that for hundreds of years there existed the so-called "Holy Roman Empire of German Nation" and the emperor used to be the Austrian Erzherzog and later Austrian Emperor for several hundred years as well. This empire, however, only existed on paper and the title "Emperor" was an honorary title. Austria has been a nation of its own and known by name since 996 AC.
The Habsburg Monarchy with its capital Vienna has been the home of many great classical musicians such as Mozart or Strauss and is to a large extent the cradle of classic music, the most renowned German classical musician is Richard Wagner (and there we are back to nationalism).
These are details but - as always in history - details matter."
The following articles were particularly helpful on the changes in the world of classical music:
Evelyn Chadwick. "Of Music and Men." The Strad. December, 1997. p. 1324-1329.
Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse. "Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of 'Blind' Auditions on Female Musicians." American Economic Review. September 2000. Vol. 90. No. 4. p. 715-741. See main homepage.
Bernard Holland. "The Fair, New World of Orchestra Auditions." January 11, 1981. New York Times. www.nyt.com
Originally, I wrote a much longer conclusion to Blink. But then I cut it back. I think that may have been a mistake. Here is a section that I was going to add to the conclusion. I think it may have the lessons of Blink a bit clearer. It's about the cable television network HBO:
In the fall of 1999, a screenwriter named Alan Ball met with Carolyn Strauss, who is the head of original programming for the cable television network HBO. They had lunch, in the Valley, not far from the studio where Ball was working on a sitcom for ABC. Strauss had reading Jessica Mitford's classic "The American Way of Death" and was curious about doing a television series about a family-run funeral home. "Originally I thought about it as a half hour black comedy," Strauss says. "I wondered if there was a way to treat death on television. I thought it could be something that we could do that the networks probably wouldn't do." Ball had just won an Oscar for writing the critically-acclaimed movie "American Beauty," and he found the idea fascinating. Over Christmas, at his mother's home in Georgia, he wrote a script, and gave it to Strauss. She thought it was good, but too restrained. "Our thought was that he needed to take the shackles off a little bit," she remembers. "It felt like a network TV script. Some of the situations wrapped up a little bit more neatly that we would have liked. It didn't feel as complicated as it ultimately grew to be. We basically said, make it messier, mess it up like life is, have situations that don't necessarily resolve at the end of the hour. I remember there was something in the script where the will was read, and the family had left the funeral home to both brothers. It was a contrivance to keep the brother, Nate, in Los Angeles. That's what they call a series lock. The family is forced together. And that's how you keep the series going, as opposed to natural human complication. We told him to remove that, so you don't create this artificial situation."
Ball was stunned. "I've never received a note like that in Hollywood in my life. Usually you get a note that says, make everyone nicer and articulate the sub-text, both of which I think are antithetical to good drama. My feeling was--wow! Thank you."
Ball went back and made the script darker and more complicated and more ambiguous. The pilot was shot. He gave it to HBO on a Friday night. On Monday, he was given the go-ahead. "At a network they would have tried everything out on a focus group first," Ball says. "There was none of that, and we got picked up for a second season before any episode had even been aired. For whatever reason, they seemed sure of themselves." Nor did anyone have any great expectations about commercial success. "Alan's charge wasn't to go and do something that is going to have the largest possible appeal," says Richard Plepler, who is the executive vice president of HBO. "Alan's charge was to go do something with a truly original voice that addresses something that most people don't want to talk about."
The first episode of "Six Feet Under" aired in August 2001. It did not do well. The show received a ratings share of 5.5, which, in the cable universe, is miniscule. But then, as the months past and word of mouth began to build, the ratings steadily climbed. By the second season, the ratings had doubled. By the show's season, "Six Feet Under" received a record sixteen Emmy nominations and was widely considered one of the best shows on television.
In Blink, I've talked a lot about circumstances where first impressions can be misleading. The Aeron chair, "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" all generated bad first impressions because they were different, and people take some time to warm up to difference. Understanding the genius of those ideas took patience. But we live in a world where preaching patience has become increasingly difficult, where companies are finding it harder and harder to ignore the first impressions of their customers, and where more and more difficult and complex and unusual ideas are struggling to see the light of day." If you study the greatest rock acts--Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis. Their pinnacle didn't happen on the first album, or the second, or the third, or the fourth," says Craig Kallman, the co-chairman of Atlantic Records. "It didn't happen until their tenth. 'Rumors,' Fleetwood Mac's finest album, was their tenth album. The first big Pink Floyd album was 'Dark Side of the Moon' which was number seven. But now, forget a second or a third or a fourth album. If it doesn't happen for a band on the first single, I can't even do a second single."
This is why the example of HBO is so important because they have become the source of what is widely thought to be the best programming on television--and they have done so by making a practice out of ignoring first impressions. Did they care to market research "Six Feet Under"--to find out, ahead of time, how it would go over with their audience? Not at all. They got the pilot on a Friday and approved it on a Monday. Did they care when the first wave of reactions to the show were, when it premiered in the summer of 2001? Not at all. They worried so little about things like ratings that they signed on for a second season before the first show had even aired. HBO simply does not follow the traditional network script. "I remember when David Chase came in for the first time," Plepler said, referring to the writer who created the hit HBO show 'The Sopranos.' "He pitched this show about a guy who lives in New Jersey and runs a little mob family--not a big mob family--a little mob family, in New Jersey, and the conceit of the show, ladies and gentleman, is that he is stressed out, has panic attacks has a terribly conflicted relationship with his mother and will see a shrink. That is not an immediate winner." But HBO was patient with the Sopranos, just as they would later be patient with "Six Feet Under," and they were patient not because a few key executives stuck their necks out, but because they have a business model--a system in which they operate--that allows them to be patient. This is the third lesson of Blink. We can all point to occasions when difficult ideas managed to break through based on the courage of individuals. "All in the Family" made it at CBS because of Robert Wood and Fred Silverman, and the Aeron chair made it at Herman Miller because of the support of far-sighted executives. But that is not good enough. Talented people don't last forever, and lucky breaks sometime come along only once in a generation. If we want truly patience, we have to create patient institutions.
The key to HBO's success is that its status as a cable television channel allows it to think about its audience, and to deal with its audience's reactions, in a completely different way than the networks. Plepler remembers, for example, when he and the other HBO brass first watched the pilot for "Six Feet Under." "We were up on the 15th floor and the lights came on, everyone said that is really good. Holy shit! And that is all we cared about. Now, if you are Jeff Zucker or Les Moonves"--here Plepler referred to the programming heads of NBC and CBS, respectively--"you would also have said that is really good. But then you would have to have asked: Who's going to watch it?"
Plepler wasn't being disparaging about Zucker and Moonves. In their position, he knew, he would have had to act in exactly the same way, because the economic realities of the broadcast television business necessarily change the way an executive watches a new show. Zucker and Moonves have to wonder, first and foremost, how large the potential audience of a show is. And they can't just make a vague guess. They have to know relatively precisely. A show's profitability on broadcast television is a function, in large part, of the number of people who watch it, and if a show like "Six Feet Under" can't reach a very particular threshold of popularity, NBC and CBS and ABC can't afford to buy it. Now its possible that Zucker and Moonves would have watched that pilot and thought, as the HBO people clearly did, that Six Feet Under had a chance to be a big hit once the audience got used to the show. But that doesn't make things any easier for them. After all, Alan Ball went back and made "Six Feet Under" more complicated and ambiguous. The characters were complex. The loose ends of the plot weren't resolved neatly at the end of the hour. Ball says that, to his mind, the show didn't begin to sort through those many layers and find its own voice until the sixth or seventh episode of the first season. Plepler says that it wasn't until the second season that "Six Feet Under" began to truly find its audience. Like Kenna and the Aeron chair, this was not a show that makes a great first impression. But if "Six Feet Under" takes seven or eight episode to catch on, that's going to be seven or eight weeks where NBC and CBS suffer low ratings, and seven or eight weeks where they take a big hit in what they can charge from advertisers. Can a network afford that? Ball says that when he first wrote the "Six Feet Under" script, his agent wondered whether they ought to show it to some of the networks. Immediately, Ball rejected the idea. "If I'd given this to a network the first thing would have been. Do they have to be they have to be funeral directors? Can't they be something a bit less depressing? I can just imagine the kind of note that a network executive would have given Shakespeare. Does Hamlet's father have to be dead?" Perhaps that's a bit harsh. But the gist of what Ball is saying is true. A network executive would ask Shakespeare if Hamlet's father had to be dead, because the average television viewer's first impression of a show about a dithering Prince with a dead father isn't positive--and to guarantee the kind of large, immediate audience that a network is looking for they have to think hard about whether they afford a negative first impression.
Now think of things from the HBO's executive's perspective. They look at "Six Feet Under" and their first thought is that they love it. They feel just like the music executives did when they heard Kenna. With Kenna, though, the record executives were handcuffed. They liked him. But radio didn't--and it's radio that holds all the cards in the music business. But HBO doesn't' need the approval of anyone else to make a programming decision. Their second thought is that "Six Feet Under" could never work on network television--and that's a good thing too. People will only pay for HBO if it offers them something they can't get for free on the networks. And does the fact that Six Feet Under may take a while to find its footing matter? Not necessarily. HBO is a subscription series. They don't get paid by the minute. They get paid by the month. They have time to win over their audience. It doesn't particularly matter, in fact, if some viewers never like "Six Feet Under." In the case of the networks, the viewer votes, every day, on everything they watch. The typical subscriber, by contrast, buys HBO, from a third party cable operator, typically as part of a bundle of pay-television channels. They vote not on an individual show, but on all the shows in the bundle. HBO really only has to deliver a least one or two shows, at any given time, that at least someone wants badly enough to keep paying for the cable package. A show like "Six Feet Under," in other words, might be more useful to HBO if it is loved by a small and devoted group, than if it is merely liked by a much larger audience. The governing logic of the network and the HBO are, in this sense, exactly opposite. The networks are intimately connected to their audience. If ten million American viewers sneeze at a new ABC sitcom, ABC catches a cold. But HBO? It's as if they are looking at their audience through a one-way mirror. "We only want to make good television. That all we can do," says Strauss. "I know that sounds simplistic. But the fact is that we don't have any other goal. We don't have to sell soap. We're not advertiser driven, and we have such a distant relationship with our subscribers. We're not even selling our shows directly. We're bought by an operator." Strauss gave the sense that of all the programming executives in Hollywood, her job was the easiest. Everyone else in her position was trying to reconcile their first impressions with their estimate of their audience's first impressions. Strauss's only concern, when she saw a pilot or heard a new idea, was with her own Blink moment. "Larry David came to us and wanted to do a special," she said, referring to the roots of HBO's highly acclaimed comedy, "Curb Your Enthusiasm. "He wanted to do a show about the making of a show, where he was going to trace his path to a standup comedy special, and the special would never happen. So he did this sort of documentary, and it was great. So we went to him and said--this is a great series. He said--you're right. And lot and behold, there was a series. It's the kind of thing where you really need to give somebody 100 percent free rein, which s something a network is almost never comfortable doing. Larry shows me an outline, and my participation in that show consists of picking up the phone and saying, Larry, that outline is hysterical."
What is striking about the HBO experience, of course, is that it has become an article of faith in the business world that companies need to be as intimate as possible to their customers--that businesses have to know what their customers want in order to give them what they need. That's why politicians poll, and cereal companies hold focus groups, and television networks track the first impressions of their audience so closely. It isn't supposed to be the case that a successful business can be so utterly cut off from its audience; that a top executive can make her choices based just on what she likes, and communicate with a key supplier by picking up the phone and saying--"Larry, that outline is hysterical." What HBO proves is that there are situations where it does not help to be exposed to a customer's first impressions. By having a system in place that protects it from these kinds of problematic first impressions--that depends, instead, only on the thin-slicing skills of its executives--HBO has made a new kind of television possible.
We need more of these kinds of systems in place. The traditional model of hypersensitivity to audience reactions does not give us bad ideas. But it gives us a certain, narrow kind of idea. It impoverishes our world. If we want to live in a society that values our first impressions, we have to build it for ourselves.