Published on: May 15, 2012by Michael Sansolo
Twenty years ago next week, Johnny Carson signed off "The Tonight Show" for the final time. For a portion of the MNB audience that’s your cue to say, “Wow, has it been that long?” For the other portion of the audience - possibly the majority - it’s time to say, “Who”?
That’s how the world keeps changing. Carson was the undisputed king of late night television (in the US, that is.) He is still considered so iconic that he remains the standard by which Letterman, Leno, Stewart, and the rest are judged and frequently found lacking. Yet an incredibly large portion of the American population - including nearly everyone under the age of 35 - has no personal recollection of ever seeing him perform on live television.
Carson is in the news this week, thanks to an excellent PBS documentary about him on the "American Masters" series that aired last night in most markets. Also in the news - Mark Zuckerberg, who turns 28 this week while at the same time the business he founded, Facebook,is scheduled to go through an initial public offering (IPO) that will raise billions of dollars for the company. (Hopefully no part of the MNB audience will ask “who”?)
The convergence of these unrelated events prompts some serious questions about business and the creativity it takes to stay on top.
Carson ruled in an era where America’s late night choices were limited. Sure, Carson had some competition, but he never really was challenged because he was always more topical and funnier. Plus, he was essentially an institution in a way that few things are today. I’m young enough to remember when it seemed special that I was finally old enough to get to watch Carson and mature enough to understand what he was saying. The competition never had a chance.
Today, America can select between thousands of channels at bedtime, with offerings ranging from pawn to porn. And that’s just on television. The range of choices is available on line in even greater numbers.
The parallels can be found in how America shops. The choices are broader and more varied than ever and the notion of an institution is nostalgic. No doubt there was a time when shopping choices were passed generation to generation just as there were once families devoted to Fords or Chevys. Today competition comes from everywhere and the choice of where to shop can change product by product or simply by day of the week.
Beyond that, reputations and institutions are made and destroyed instantly and that is where Zuckerberg’s world comes in. In a Facebook world, everything and everyone is important - it is up to the individual user to assign priorities and set the agenda. In Carson's world, the entire country would talk about what he said was important - he set the agenda. (It was suggested on the PBS documentary that Carson and Walter Cronkite were perhaps the most influential Americans of their generation. If they said it was important, it was. When Cronkite criticized the nation's Vietnam policies, and when Carson started taking comedic potshots at Richard Nixon, it signaled the end for both.)
But let’s look beyond social media and its implications as we consider the power of creativity. While social media existed before Facebook, the web community was, and is, new in so many ways. If you read about the birth of Facebook you see that the inspiration wasn’t to improve MySpace, but rather to create a new way to link to friends around the Harvard University campus, where Zuckerberg was studying. In other words, Zuckerberg was free to create because he wasn’t encumbered by the past.
Last week I wrote about the importance of basics because I think they do matter. Carson may have had an institutional advantage, but his real edge was that no one combined comedy, entertainment and current events better. (His "Tonight Show" was something very new, vastly different from the versions done before him by Steve Allen and Jack Paar.) Carson's age was never a limit; in fact, he was as hip as any comedian, even in his 60s when he stopped performing. (Remember, Sam Walton was in his mid-40s when he opened the first Wal-Mart.) For Zuckerberg, inexperience was an advantage. Not knowing limits, he just kept breaking rules as he went.
So yes, keep working those basics because you must. Then take a second to think about Johnny Carson and Mark Zuckerberg and ask yourself what are you doing to maintain excellence or smash the status quo.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at email@example.com . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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