What "Saturday Night Live" and startups have in common

By Tom Limongello, Guest Contributor , written on September 30, 2013

From The News Desk

How excited are you for the new season of SNL? No, I'm not smoking eMeth, and actually... don't answer that just yet.

More than a million of us recently watched actor Kevin Spacey talk intelligently about how TV networks can be disrupted. He was detailing the standoff in which he and "House of Cards" refused to do the requisite pilot that TV networks demanded and that Netflix was savvy enough to go along and sign the show without one anyway. But let's be fair. As good of a show as "House of Cards" is, the show's story arc was completed in three seasons during the 1990s on the BBC. So this "showdown" was really just an issue of star power than a disruption of an industry.

It's hard to disrupt networks, studios, and cable providers, namely because it's expensive. At last week's BrightRoll Video Summit during Ad Week in NYC, Terry Kawaja explained that since cable subscription revenues are received a month in advance from users, there's a huge wad of cash available for content creation, which effectively gives TV networks and movie studios a huge moat to keeps disruptors out.

In that case, how do we promote lesser known stars who can swim the moat and scale the TV and film castle? I'm not talking about "American Idol," "The Voice," or some other fetishized talent selection process. I'm thinking of a platform that takes the risk of putting mostly untested, raw talent on TV without adult supervision for the purpose of making new content every week.

There's exactly one show, and it's been doing it for nearly 40 years: "Saturday Night Live." SNL started in 1975 with a mission to disrupt network TV. Even though it now represents the TV network establishment at NBC, SNL continues to churn out entertaining new material. And in a year like this one, with six new featured members, means a whole new "fund" of characters is ready to emerge.

You might be thinking last Saturday night's episode was carried by Tina Fey; the new cast members weren't inspiring. Or maybe you just couldn't get into it, like many who've watched too many "Best of SNL" collections. Or like Lorne Michaels says in a recent NYT article, you've already passed the period in life when you were excited to stay up past Weekend Update and aren't going to latch onto the new cast the way you would have in your teens. Or you might be right in thinking that a lot of it from the main cast just wasn't funny (I'm looking at you Drunk Uncle).

The truth is every episode has sketches that bomb. I'm not shocked when I hear casual watchers of SNL dismiss the show, but I am surprised to hear that more entrepreneurs aren't addicted to it. Chris Rock called SNL "the Harvard of Comedy" and explained that Lorne Michaels made cast members write and produce their skits all the way down to the costumes and makeup. What Michaels has continued to do is produce results as the most successful, and perhaps only VC of comedy by turning creative, actor/writer geniuses into CEOs. The job of those CEOs is to cultivate recurring characters that sometimes make it into the movie theaters, like "The Blues Brothers" and "Wayne's World," or sometimes fizzle out after a good long run like the Californians.

To me watching SNL is like following startups, because SNL cast and writers have to come up with new ideas every week to perform live. This year's cast is so new that nearly all of them are trying to prove themselves, and the new featured players are forced to chase good ideas that look like bad ones to the main cast. Venture capitalist Chris Dixon said, there are “good ideas that look like good ideas, and good ideas that look like bad ideas… we're in the business of all the things left over."

Sure, a main cast member will do the Obama impression, but the new featured players that are forced to be both writer and actor will be looking for those surprise laughs when they stumble on a subtler good idea. For example when Al Franken decided that he couldn't really write Stuart Smalley for someone else, or when this week former writer Mike O'Brien did "Rick's Model T's" the world's first used car lot and TV commercial; "lots of firsts today, folks" you get to see something with imagination.

Startups and SNL both have to make sure their platforms fit the right paradigm. So whether that's Nick Burns the computer guy fixing desktops, Al Pacino checking his bank balance on his mobile phone, or Fred Armisen reviewing Google Glass, the medium is more important than the message. Also, neither startups nor SNL can go too far ahead of cultural behavior. Video startups fail often, because the devices and networks we use aren't ready to make it as easy for users to create, share, and consume as easily as photos, and it has taken big leaps in product design from Vine and others just to make headway.

Similarly, SNL struggles with getting Americans to understand references to international culture, and the successes usually come more from great execution than anything else, like Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd's Wild and Crazy Guys, Mike Myers' Sprockets, Kristen Wiig's Ghost Mom fashioned after Korean Water Ghost mythology, or Kate McKinnon's sketch that veils the parody of Chelsea Lately in Swedish gibberish.

Saturday Night Live is not the only disruptor in this space looking to make creatives into CEOs. James Belfer, who runs NYC's Dogfish Accelerator told me that movie studios find the current trend toward niche audiences scary and expensive, but that the niche content trend works in the favor of indie film creators. However, he warns that the business model that directors and producers usually have at their disposal is only spray and pray, where they make the whole film and hope that it gets into the Sundance film festival.

He sees that model as more like winning the lottery than running a business, which is why he is adapting the Y combinator model to accelerate the founding of lean-principled teams. Once those teams are off the ground he espouses a Betaworks model for ongoing growth of platform businesses that create their own tools to manage their audience. That means that his companies can try to compete more evenly with traditional studios, perhaps not head on, but by changing the game and taking more control of the marketing and distribution process.

Dayna Grayson, a partner at NEA who runs their NEA Studio accelerator, says that their experiment this spring taught them that creative people still need to learn the value of teaming up. NEA Studio says, "Two founders can move three times as fast." Similarly, Jessica Alter, who runs FounderDating, posited that in the area of graphic design, there's an interest in starting businesses, but that designers generally like to focus solely on design, which makes it tough to get psyched about the other range of things required to really run a company.

But in TV land, Lorne Michaels still leads in disrupting his own space. When YouTube became a competitive creative platform to network TV, NBC pulled their clips, but Lorne Michaels eventually let Andy Samberg run wild with video shorts, most famously with "Lazy Sunday." Lorne Michaels is also behind Broadway Video Ventures which launched Above Average, a YouTube channel and growing platform for SNL and other aspiring writer / performers to find the niche audience that is okay with watching the newest, edgiest stuff that doesn't fit on the 90-minute live show and that features clip series like "The Front Desk" and "Seven Minutes in Heaven."

Yes, I'm just like you, when I heard that Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudekis, and Seth Myers were all leaving I said What Up with That!? Yet, I treat the change in guard as if those cast members have IPO'ed. In the startup world, if older companies don't exit the stage new companies don't have room to innovate.

In the end, it just means the God of SNL had to do some extra work going to comedy clubs and improv theaters to shake things up in his comedy universe again.

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