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Research examines the creative process for a hit TV show

Kristen B. Morales

August 7, 2017

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Creating a hit TV show is more than just luck or talent.

In fact, the process can be divided into 14 steps—elements such as inspiration, forming ideas, making mistakes, taking a break and, eventually, creating a pilot—that all contribute to a show's success.

Now, University of Georgia researchers Sarah E. Sumners and Aubra Shepard have taken this one step further, connecting the creative process behind the hit Finnish TV show "Strömsö" to established research about the creative process. Their findings could have implications in other areas of the entertainment industry, and even in businesses or organizations where creativity is encouraged or required.

Sumners, interim director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the UGA College of Education, and Shepard, a Ph.D. student in the College's department of educational psychology, presented their findings at this summer's conference for the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, held in conjunction with the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland. There, among researchers and scholars of the entertainment industry, they introduced the research on "Strömsö" and how it might affect the development of other projects.

"One of the questions we got during our presentation was, 'Do you think this would apply to other media fields?'" said Shepard. "And our answer was yes, it could. We're pulling from the greater creativity research literature, so these things have been found in other places—we just don't know how they come together, or if they always come together in the same way."

The project began two years ago, when Elisabeth Morney, a Finnish television producer, came to UGA as a visiting scholar while studying for her Ph.D. in her home country. She had taken a look at the process her team used to create "Strömsö," which is a show centered around cooking and home and garden improvements based in one house, and was curious how these steps might tie in to interdisciplinary research on creativity, said Sumners.

Other areas of television production, such as editing or sound mixing, are based on a set process. But there is no framework for developing a hit show. Maybe, Morney thought, the UGA researchers could help answer the "why" behind the steps she outlined—steps such as why making mistakes, brainstorming, analyzing rejected ideas and forming a more concrete idea turned into a hit show.

While Sumners and Shepard say they have more work to do on the model—a paper is in the works, as well as further research—it does lay the groundwork for a process that organizations could look to when looking to foster a creative environment.

It also opens the door for more work on how interpersonal relationships affect the creative process, added Sumners. "Now, I think the challenge is trying to determine at what point the steps take place, how they are used ... how people interact in such a way that can be conducive or non-conducive to creative thinking."

Shepard added that because the research team drew from research covering different areas of creativity, it allows for a broader look at the creative process. It also helps show that some steps—such as walking away, and feeling anxious about the outcome—are perfectly normal.

"Since my background is in organizational psychology and mental health, I see this as a way to normalize what happens in the creative process—it's normal to experience chaos and anxiety; it's normal to need to take breaks; it's normal to need to backtrack, to re-evaluate," said Shepard. "So, for me, this is almost a way to, within organizations that might be more bureaucratic and more risk-adverse, to say that when creative TV shows are made, this is part of the natural process. You've got to embrace it instead of saying, 'No, we have to get this done.'"