Opinion: Why it’s time to forego growth and return to storytelling basics

Bo Stehmeier

Bo Stehmeier, CEO of My Octopus Teacher producer Off The Fence, argues that it’s time for companies to let go of their “addiction” to profit and growth and embrace storytelling green shoots.

In the west, the new year is well underway and the underground stirrings of spring are bringing a whiff of hope. The east has now also rung in its 2023, so it feels like a good time for some reflection and intention-setting.

As every school child knows, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. I’ve been wondering whether that explains why, here in the lands of the sunset, celebrating the end of things – days, seasons, harvests – is so entrenched in western myth and culture. And that got me thinking that perhaps the time has come for our global TV community to look to the land of the sunrise. Not perhaps to the actual east, but to a metaphorical one.

Under the Chinese Zodiac, we have just leapt out of the year of the tiger, which is associated with bravery, competition, unpredictability and confidence. Sounding familiar? But tiger years are also known to be turbulent – the onset of World War 1 in 1914, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It’s fair to say that 2022 didn’t disappoint us in that regard: the tumult in Iran and the brutal war in Ukraine, not to mention flood, fire, famine in some parts of the world as our planet fought back.

We’ve become obsessed with the brands, the Hollywood talent, the fashion icons… it’s time to think about the storytelling

So now, the Chinese wheel of fortune has spun once more, and we find ourselves in the year of the rabbit. I’m hoping it will also be the year when ‘enough’ is finally seen as the real abundance. When nervously Googling the rabbit’s likely impact on 2023, I was relieved to find words like ‘gentle’, ‘quiet’, ‘elegant’, ‘alert’, as well as ‘quick’, ‘skilful’, ‘kind’, ‘patient’ and ‘responsible’. Rabbits, it transpires, are also nurturers. They take care of their existing possessions and communities, rather than slashing and burning and annexing other people’s warrens. Does it for me.

But what has all this got to with telly? Looking at the TV marketplace after years of aggressive M&As and the relentless harvesting of profit, it seems clear to me that we’ve reached a tipping point. There’s nothing left to consume and harvest. The industry has eaten itself. To quote Game Of Thrones, winter has probably already come to us producers and distributors as we struggle to negotiate the over-consolidated marketplace. So maybe it’s time to look to the lands of sunrise for a new dawn. We need to work out what our new story – our new myth, if you like – should and could be. And not only as an industry, but as a global economy, society and biosphere.

So I’m proposing that we welcome the gentle rabbit into our work lives. Up until now, the media industry has been focused on the bricks and mortar of our fairytale castles of commerce. What’s more, we’ve become obsessed with the bricks: the brands, the Hollywood talent, the fashion icons, the influencers, the A-list producers and directors. But it’s now time to think about the mortar holding everything together – in other words, the storytelling. We humans have a deeply embedded need for stories, not just for comfort and escapism, but also as a means of understanding, connecting and empathising with others. As we are all painfully aware, life as we know is on the brink of collapse, if not extinction. As I write this, for example, The Red Cross has just announced that we remain woefully unprepared for a new pandemic. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.

I’m pinning my faith on our industry’s mortar – our wise and wily storytellers – to help us rebuild for change

Personally, I’m pinning my faith on our industry’s mortar – our wise and wily storytellers – to help us rebuild for change and glue things back together. I’m not unrealistic, however. Most of us – and I’m no exception – are answerable to commercial masters who are very attached to their bricks. Specifically here I see distribution led studio thinking coming to the forefront, the industry mortar, the yet to be celebrated storytellers that will form the connective tissue for an already fractured industry that is facing a recession.

So this shift will demand that every one of us makes changes, both to the structure of our organisations and in terms of relinquishing some of our perceived ‘power’. And it won’t be easy. Initially, it will seem like we’ve replaced our fairytale castles with crude mud huts. But we need to go back to basics to create a solid foundation on which to build a sustainable future.

So as the sun sets on this era of over-abundance, let’s call on all the storytellers to help us write the new myths we so desperately need to prepare for a new sunrise. It’s a time for new talent, budgets and bravery as we let go of our addiction to growth, profit and greed and embrace riches of a different sort. Forget tigers. You’ll find me down the rabbit hole of storytelling.

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