Here’s what Johnny Carson & David Letterman can teach us about social video

Apr 19, 2016
Here’s what Johnny Carson & David Letterman can teach us about social video

In a world where everyone wants to look forward, I find the best way of developing a strategy is to go in the other direction.

So as blogs express a war between Facebook and Snapchat over mobile video and many chime in with new age wisdom, I decided to get old.

The time was this week back in 1980.

The players were David Letterman and Johnny Carson. The results were as funny as you would expect. The lessons from that 5:00 clip transcend this digital video wave 36 years later.

But first, take some time to laugh.


Takeaway #1: Slow It Down

The first thing Johnny Carson mentions in the clip is how tough it will be for Letterman to fill 90 minutes, five days a week. As brands develop and build upon mobile video strategy, it’s crucial to realize the power of pace.

  • How many brands and journalists have you seen start a blog, write like gangbusters, then sputter to a near halt under the weight of publishing pressure?

  • How many social media feeds have followed the same formula?

Consumers love consistency. We can provide it while being innovative. There’s no need to repeat history again.

Takeaway #2: Master The Fundamentals

There’s a reason Carson and Letterman were the best in the world at what they did. The banter is timeless.

  • Making fun of bosses: Check

  • Have fun with the weather: Check

  • Take some swipes at the big city: Check

This is Comedy 101 with two comedic Beethoven’s acing fundamentals like comedic timing, strategic listening and reading the audience.

Video fundamentals still matter in this new world. Bad audio will force people to leave sooner than Letterman can break things with a hydraulic press. Shaky video is the digital equivalent of Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers and Chevy Chase trying to topple Carson in the ratings. Technology doesn’t topple talent. Video innovation doesn’t mean abandoning what’s worked for nearly 70 years.

Takeaway #3: Embrace Failure

NBC made a huge gamble on Letterman, cancelling three game shows for the new program. The stakes were too high to tolerate failure, and Letterman’s morning show was quickly cancelled when ratings sagged.

Still, Letterman had the forum to try stupid pet tricks and other segments that eventually became staples of his NBC and CBS career. Was it right for a morning audience? In 1980, clearly not.

Mobile and social video are evolving beasts. It’s just like TV in the 50’s and the internet in the 90’s and social media in the 2000’s. Nobody has mastered the game. Everyone (and I’m happy to throw myself into this pool) will make mistakes. Brands and journalists have to be in an environment where those mistakes can be tolerated, learned from, and reacted to accordingly.

There are plenty of current media outlets and agencies that now act like NBC did back in the 1980: unable or unwilling to sustain outlier thinking. If you work in one of those places, I would pass on the unpredictable nature that comes with live, online and mobile-friendly video….with one exception.

Takeaway #4: Have A Champion

Johnny Carson hand selected Letterman to host Late Night after renegotiating his contract with NBC. The network also paid Letterman to stay put after cancelling his morning show out of fear he might jump ship and compete with Carson.

Effective change management (and social video implementation is a change theory case study waiting to happen) requires someone who can champion the cause and tout short-term success.

We all have to find people who are willing to have our back as we look for better ways to tell stories. Those people have to have the clout and fortitude to help us withstand the failures that are inevitable in using new technology. NBC couldn’t afford to lose Carson, and he used that leverage to help a mentee.

When we can work with those champions to plan, deliver the plan, see what works (and more importantly what doesn’t work) and act accordingly, we can create magic, even if we don’t have Ed McMahon or Paul Shaffer by our side.

Maybe social and mobile video is a revolution. It’s exciting. But as 36 years of television history can show you in five minutes, it’s not unprecedented, and there’s a way we can all look at past history to identify future success.  

Dan Farkas is a Lecturer of Strategic Communication at Ohio University. He lives in Powell, Ohio with his wife (who may have binge watched Fuller House on Netflix as he wrote this) and two amazing children. Dan would welcome any way to advance this conversation and hopes you will connect with him @danfarkas or on LinkedIn.

Photo: Old TV via Shutterstock

About the author

Lecturer of Strategic Communication at Ohio University. I adore PR, marketing, social strategy, video production and podcasting. Parenting blogger @cbusdads.

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