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- When Art Bell first pitched a 24-hour comedy channel back in the 1980s, coworkers and executives were skeptical.
- Despite the criticism and pushback, Bell persisted, eventually launching HBO’s The Comedy Channel in 1989, later called Comedy Central a year later.
- Now, as the creator of “the center of the comedy universe,” he shares with Business Insider four tips to anyone who has a big vision, but is struggling to make it happen.
- Practice pitching to and craft responses to potential objections or questions. Don’t compromise on your vision, and speak up in conversations with higher level management and executives who can help bring your idea to life.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“It can’t be done. There’s so much comedy on television all over the dial, why would anyone need a 24-hour-a-day comedy channel?”
This was the verdict from the head of HBO’s head of original programming when I pitched my idea to her of an all-comedy channel in the late ’80s. She also said, “What comedians would be on the channel? Their management would just die before they’d let them appear on a comedy channel.”
And she wasn’t the only skeptic. Everyone I spoke to at first, from coworkers to the c-suite, was dubious. Even my own mother thought the channel, when it eventually did get started, wasn’t funny.
Yet the idea for a 24-hour all-comedy channel was one I’d been thinking about for years.
I loved comedy. During the 1980s, new cable channels were popping up on the dial constantly: ESPN, A&E, MTV, and many others. HBO, which I’d joined as a young, mid-level employee, was already deep into the comedy business with their standup specials featuring top comedians like Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Frankly, I was surprised they hadn’t already come up with a plan for a comedy network. I knew in my heart that it was only a matter of time before someone did create a comedy channel, so I hoped that the idea would catch on with my management before it caught on somewhere else.
I kept scheming and refining the idea. I even wrote up a plan with financial projections that nobody at HBO really wanted to see.
Until somebody did: One day, a casual conversation about it with the EVP of business development led to an impromptu meeting with then-chairman of HBO, Michael Fuchs.
I described the idea and the project was green-lit. In 1989, HBO launched The Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central a year later, and went on to become what I’d always hoped: the center of the comedy universe.
I detail this story in full — all of the funny and not-so-funny ups and downs — in my new book, “Constant Comedy.” Those days taught me a lot about how to bring a longshot vision into reality.
Below are four recommendations I’d offer to anyone with a vision who may be hearing a lot of “no’s” on the way to making it happen:
Business financial make money capital trading 1. Talk about your idea to anyone who will listen — and let them shoot it down
This is important for two reasons: One, it forces you to articulate your idea to almost anyone. Your girlfriend may know nothing about it, but she loves the idea. Your office mate thinks it’s crazy. Your 12-year-old cousin is rapt with attention and starts making suggestions.
When you finally get your shot at pitching your idea to the company, you’ll end up talking to people across the organization: the top execs, the tech guys, the finance guys, operations guys — and they all need to be convinced. So talking about your idea polishes your ability to speak about your idea convincingly regardless of the person or circumstances.
The second reason to talk about it is because people are never shy about telling you why your idea won’t work: It’s too expensive, it’s not in our wheelhouse, the public isn’t clamoring for it, if it fails, we’re screwed.
You need to listen to these people and, as any good salesperson knows, come up with responses that overcome their objections. Yes, it’s expensive, but if it works, it will make a lot of money. No, it’s not in our current wheelhouse, but if we expand our wheelhouse that might be helpful in lots of ways. And so on.
Business financial make money capital trading 2. Enlist people to champion it
Start with your boss. If that doesn’t work, see if you can meet with others at your management level and talk to them. One of them might introduce you to their boss and that could be useful.
Notice when someone gets excited listening to you and starts to see your vision come alive, and enlist that person in helping in any way they can. Gathering supporters is part of your job.
The more senior they are, the more respected in the organization they are, the more helpful they can be if they’re cheerleaders for your idea. This helps build momentum within the organization that you will need to get your project approved.
At this point some readers may be thinking, “Wait. If I tell everyone my idea, won’t someone steal it?” It’s a fair concern, but if you’re really committed to making the idea happen, keep your eye on the prize.
Consider that all your talking has, if nothing else, made you a key person in the company to include in the project even if they put someone else in charge of it. That’s exactly what happened to me. I was a director-level employee with no comedy business or television programming experience. I was thrilled when they made me vice president of programming despite my inexperience, and I stayed with the channel long enough to help it succeed.
And consider this: If your idea is big enough and bold enough, not every company will be willing to risk failure by trying something new. I wanted a comedy network to exist, and if some other company started it, I’d try my hardest to go work for them.
After we started Comedy Channel, one of our first employees came from A&E, and he said as soon as he heard about us, he came to us looking for a job, any job. So aside from the ultimate satisfaction you’ll get out of seeing your idea work out, you may end up with the job you always dreamed of. And that’s no small thing.
Business financial make money capital trading 3. Iterate, reiterate, and tweak
Don’t compromise your vision, but realize as you’re talking to senior executives and decision-makers that you may have to start smaller than you wanted, or start from a different place than you envisioned, or start without all the resources you think the project needs.
Remember what it is you want to hear: “Yes, let’s do it.”
The phrase, “Once the battle starts, the battle plan goes out the window,” is so true. Understand that whatever plan you had is probably going to change. That’s especially true if your approach to realizing your vision turns out not to work.
You’ll need to try something else, and that new approach might be something you come up with or someone else mandates. Keep thinking about the ultimate goal. Do more of what works, do less of what doesn’t.
If you find your business going south, your job is to figure out how to save the day, not to agree with all the people standing around saying, “I told you this would never work.”
Persist until you’re successful, or you’re completely out of business and standing on the street wondering where your next job might be.
Keep your dream alive as long as you can. Explore all options: taking the idea to another company, raising money yourself, finding outside partners.
Keep working under the assumption that every problem you encounter has a solution, and your job is to keep yourself and anyone who’s willing to help searching for that solution.
Business financial make money capital trading 4. Put yourself on the line
Pushing an idea through an organization takes the chutzpah. You will need to be outspoken.
Sometimes you will find yourself disagreeing with senior executives. You should consider that an opportunity.
A few months before I pitched my comedy idea, I was on a new business task force that recommended to the company chairman that we not get into the basic cable business. When they finished, the chairman must have sensed my skepticism, because he asked me if I agreed.
I could have gone along with the recommendations and avoided conflict, but instead I said, “No. I completely disagree, and here’s why.” After I spoke up I wondered if I’d just overstepped and put my career in jeopardy, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to air my objection for a few reasons.
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First, the committee was well-aware of the fact that I felt there was plenty of opportunity to launch new cable channels, especially with HBO’s programming and resources, so I had to be honest and upfront. Second, when the chairman asked me, I could sense his skepticism — the way he smiled while asking the question suggested he wanted me to take a stand.
To be clear, I’m not someone who haphazardly speaks my mind in any situation, but if you’re trying to work with people who are making calculated risks, sometimes you have to do it yourself every now and then.
I believe the payoff arrived months later, when he listened closely to my pitch to start a comedy channel, partly because I knew when to speak up when the time was right.
That was an important building block for my credibility. If you have strong opinions, make sure people know what they are, even if that’s scary.
One more thing: At all times, keep in mind that to champion an idea is to take a risk. Come to terms with the possibility that your project will fail spectacularly. But even if your idea goes nowhere in your organization, never gets off the ground, and gets shunted aside for all the wrong reasons, you will have gotten people’s attention — and that may help you succeed the next time you have a big idea.
Art Bell, author of Constant Comedy, is a former media executive best known for creating and building HBO’s The Comedy Channel, which went on to become Comedy Central.