Penguin Theory.

My dad is a pretty smart guy. He’s a musician – not a marketer, but I’ve always been impressed with how much he intuitively understands about marketing and advertising. He has some wise words to say about the phenomenon of copycat TV shows, movies, and radio formats. He calls it his “Penguin Theory.” Here’s how it goes…

Penguins in the wild feed on fish. Their only problem is that when they find a hole in the ice that looks like it might have some fish available, there is the risk that once they jump in, they themselves might become dinner for a predator. What’s a poor penguin to do?

Penguins are notoriously risk-averse. Driven by hunger, they want to jump in. Paralyzed by fear, they hang back around the hole in the ice, worried about being eaten. After a while, more and more penguins crowd around the hole, until one unlucky bird gets pushed in.

If he lives, ALL the penguins jump in…and immediately over-fish the hole. If he dies, they disperse, and try again later. Now compare that to S.O.P. in Hollyweird. First you have Law & Order. It succeeds, so you have spin-offs (L&O Criminal Intent, L&O SVU, L&O Trial by Jury, etc.) and copycat shows. C.S.I.? Same story. We now have C.S.I., C.S.I. Miami, C.S.I. NY, and their clones – Navy CIS, Bones, Crossing Jordan, et cetera. Sometimes, the Hollywood penguins don’t even wait to see who gets eaten. This season we have Surface, Invasion, Threshold, Night Stalker and I don’t know what else in the monsters-lurking-under-the-bed shows. In Hollywood, it seems, imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism. (For the record, George Bernhard Shaw said that first.) Even the pitches in LA are derivative…you can’t get a project greenlighted unless the execs here something like “It’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears meet Freddie Kruger on the Love Boat.”

The irony of this situation is that too much of a good thing is…too much of a good thing. Look at what happened with ABC tried to clone Who Wants to be a Millionaire from a one-night wonder into the anchor for every weeknight. People got tired of it and bailed. I rarely catch the new episodes of CSI (one of my favorite shows) on its original air date, because I Tivo it. Even if I didn’t, I’m still secure in the knowledge that I can CSI fix several times a night on cable. It won’t be long before the cable reruns and the clones burn out another good idea.

What’s the solution? I don’t know that there is one. It’s human nature to try to copy successful things. But a copy is never as good as the original. When it comes to Hollywood’s penguins, that’s one species I wish we could all put on the endangered list.

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