How to make a hit TV show

Long gone are the days when television was simply a box in the heart of the living room. Instead, television is everywhere – in your living room, on your tablet, and – yes – even on that phone of yours, thanks to streaming and to new operators, such as Netflix and Amazon, who have entered the production game as well.

Who among us isn’t working her way through one or several TV shows right now? And when we’re not watching the shows, we’re talking about them. We want more shows, new shows, new things to devour, love and get hooked on.

Naturally, Hollywood and the new players are after hits. Shows and movies that get everybody’s attention. The must-sees. The challenge for the producers is that creating a hit is easier said than done. Here are ten things to consider.


“A big studio marketing executive once told me that it all comes down to two things – fear and greed,” says Derek Thompson, author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. “Films should either make the audience envious and incited to want or they should scare and titillate them and make them anxious.”

Either way, it should stick in your brain – whether you like the feeling or not.

“Another way to generalize an element of excellent storytelling is to say that great stories allow for a combination of familiarity and surprise – familiar characters in a surprising setting, or surprising characters in a familiar setting. Novelty demands attention, but familiarity and comfort sustain it,” he adds.

Fear and greed aren’t the only emotions we are drawn to, of course.

“I don’t think there is a formula. You just have to create something that appeals to peoples’ emotions and/or that is locally relevant. Generally speaking, there are probably as many differences across hits as there are similarities,” says Yenia Zaba, Netflix Manager, Media Relations in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Recent Netflix hits, such as Stranger Things, Queer Eye and Narcos, don’t seem to have a common denominator.

“People are different,” she says.


There is so much data about consumers out there that one would be excused for thinking that it’s easy to create a show that appeals to a mainstream audience. But humans are fickle and hard to pin down. And if you need evidence of data not always being able to predict the success of a movie, remember Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a film that was, according to The New York Times, a product of a data crunching software.

Consumer data, however, is still valuable. When given the freedom of choice, people will create new habits.

“We know, for example, that people consume most comedy on Monday mornings. Maybe it’s at the start of the week we feel we need laughter in our lives a little more than usual,” says Zaba.


When producers like Amazon and Netflix have millions of subscribers paying a monthly fee, they have the advantage of being able to take chances. They can afford to go for that niche audience.

“We produce things that have mass appeal, such as Bright, a Will Smith-driven action movie. But we can also make bets, such as Narcos,” Zaba says of one of Netflix’s biggest hits of 2017.

Another hit, Stranger Things, was pitched to several other distributors that all turned it down because they didn’t believe in the story. Once it eventually landed on Netflix, though, it became a huge hit. Data is important, but so is taste.

“It always comes down to a human who greenlights a project,” Zaba says.


Humans are drawn to familiarity, which is why we look forward to sequels.

“Audiences like to tell themselves that they most crave original storytelling. What they really crave, though, is a familiar story and characters updated for new adventures – familiar surprises. Hollywood keeps making sequels because audiences keep buying tickets to sequels at a rate far higher than they buy tickets to [new] original films,” says Thompson.

But we also do like to be pleasantly surprised, which is why typically, the sequels aren’t as successful as the ones they follow.

Some people will always be drawn to the stars and choose the new Tom Cruise movie over anything else. But Thompson says things are changing.

“There was a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when studios were obsessed with paying larger and larger salaries to big stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. But today, it’s all about IP – intellectual property, like the Marvel Universe and Star Wars, which can be merchandized to produce hit film after hit film,” he says.

According to Zaba, Netflix has had similar experiences.

“Having Will Smith to do Bright with us was a recipe for success because he’s good at what he does. But the Stranger Things cast was unknown. Now they’re being courted by the biggest studios. The same goes for Dark, a German show, where a lot of the talent was found at local theaters,” she says.


The quality of the storytelling is key. For that, you have to completely trust the creators and give them creative freedom.

“We can’t simply order a show that will appeal to ‘a female audience, aged 35-55, that watches it at 8pm on Thursday nights.’ We give the filmmakers the freedom of creativity which then sometimes yields unexpected results,” Zaba says.


Since Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services already have the customers, they can deliver an entire season of a TV show at once and let the audience watch the show or film at their own pace.

Some shows (and some viewers) need more time. According to Netflix’ data, audiences were addicted to Narcos – no pun intended – by episode three, whereas it took Gilmore Girls seven episodes to find its fans. Once they were hooked, though, they became fiercely loyal.


A few years ago, the whole world seemed to be running from vampires, and then from zombies. Today, zombies have taken a back seat.

“The popular shows now are futuristic, but unlike in the 1980s and 1990s, not with spaceships. Instead, its dystopias set 100 years from now that are creating discussion and interest,” says Zaba.

Even shows from the 80s get a new spin when re-booted. Star Trek is no longer only a show about boldly going where no man has gone before. As a prequel to the original show, Star Trek: Discovery has taken a more philosophical turn.

“The world is changing so rapidly that we turn to the movies and TV shows to ask ourselves what is happening,” Zaba says.


The movie audience is truly global now, which is why even Hollywood increasingly sets
its films in non-American cities, often in China (so that a billion people can identify with the movie). Pixar, meanwhile, set the Cars sequel in Paris, London and Tokyo. Non-American actors are also getting more opportunities than in the past.

Narcos was produced by French Gaumont, the oldest production company in the world. About 70 percent of the show is in Spanish, the rest in English. For the first two seasons, the director and main star were Brazilians who had to learn Spanish, and we also added a Swede, Matias Varela, to the cast,” she adds.

Audiences are getting more sophisticated and shows cross national borders with more ease than in the past. Subtitles aren’t so scary after all (though Scandinavians always knew that anyway).


Binge-watching TV series was a novel concept until DVD boxes came along, but we didn’t start to call it that until about five years ago. “Binge watching” was the Collins English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015.

“It does change the way we produce things. We focus on the story, the narrative. A book sometimes has ten-page chapters, others are 25 pages long. Nobody gives you a book and tells you to read a chapter a week,” says Zaba.

Finally, remember the famous words of the Academy Award winning screenwriter and author William Goldman – “Nobody knows anything.”

“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. It’s always a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one,” he wrote in his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Or, to put it another way: May the Force be with you.

Originally published in Scandinavian Traveler in October 2018

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