Malcolm Gladwell digs into the roots of change

Why did the NAB pick “The Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell to engage in a keynote dialogue with org prexy David Rehr and audience members April 22?

Gladwell’s intellectual journey through the subtle changes that cause huge societal transformations parallels the recent history of the broadcast and production industries, where an accrual of technical developments — Web, mobile, TiVo, analog shutoff, IPTV, digital subchannels — has turned the business upside-down.

“The Tipping Point” showed how ideas and fads can reach critical mass, becoming social epidemics that change people’s thinking and habits. His next book, “Blink,” is about rapid cognition and the way human beings can make judgments based on the thinnest slice of experience.

Gladwell’s latest opus, “Outliers,” describes how ordinary circumstances shape the careers and lives of extraordinarily successful people. He shared with Variety his thoughts on successful people in media, and his personal relationship with television.

Outliers in media

“Some people who are extraordinary successes no longer seem so extraordinary when you realize that certain patterns of generational or social or cultural advantage make their success understandable. This is as true in media as in any other field.

“One chapter in my book looks at successful corporate lawyers in New York City, all Jewish men born in the Bronx or Brooklyn in the 1930s to immigrant parents working in the garment industry. You could do the same thing with, say, the cable industry. There was an opportunity that opened up at a particular moment in time to a certain generation of people to start on the ground floor of that industry.

“I haven’t done it, but I’m pretty sure that if you analyzed the most important players in cable as a class, you would find they have an extraordinary number of things in common. The kind of analysis I do in the book can be done on all kinds of different groups. There’s no reason why media would be any different.”

Motivation

“People in media are in an industry that’s strongly entwined with decisions made and laws passed by Congress. People who are well positioned when those kinds of institutional changes happen have an extraordinary advantage. I used to work at the Washington Post. If you ask (CEO) Don Graham why he’s in that biz, he would tell you it’s a matter of public and social responsibility. The Post has a larger role to play outside of its specific business.

“What’s thrilling about these public conversations that those of us in the media can enjoy is the added benefit that it makes our jobs exciting. That excitement is worth an awful lot. It attracts the kind of people who will give up income, all kinds of things, to be part of that excitement.”

The future of TV

“The important thing is the content on the television, not the television itself. I doubt very much whether people will be enjoying that kind of content at a specific time in the evening. But do people still want to be told stories? Absolutely. Do they want to learn about the world? Absolutely. The need to be told a story is as old as mankind. It’s not gonna change.

“And if that’s how we define the television business, I think its future is brighter than before. It just needs to adapt to different technological platforms. And all of us storytellers will be fine as long as we continue to tell good stories.”

His TV habits

“I mainly watch sports. I am your prototypical fortysomething male. I watch lots and lots of football, basketball and golf.

“I only watch on high-def, and — oh my God! — HDTV is such a different experience. It’s had this paradoxical effect on me. I’m no longer interested in going to a live football game now. Watching football on high-def has made a dramatic difference in my viewer appreciation of the game. (Standard-def and high-def) are like night and day.”

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