Plan Your Marketing Bottle Episodes

Have you watched the Friends Reunion?

Friends is one of the most successful television sitcoms of all times. The show ran for a full decade from 1994 to 2004, and during that time never once left the top ten most watched television shows.

Also consider that in the first season each of the actors were paid approximately $22,500 per episode. By seasons nine and ten that number had grown to more than $1 million per episodes, making Friends one of the most expensive television series ever made.

Now, of course, the show has more than justified that expense.  The evergreen nature of the show has paid off exponentially. By some accounts the content brand earns somewhere in the $1 billion per year range from syndication, merchandising, streaming and other deals.

So what does this have to do with content marketing?

During the Reunion show, I was fascinated to hear Marta Kaufman, one of the show’s creators, talk about how they planned “bottle episodes” every single season in order to better manage their budget for the stories that they wanted to tell.

The term “Bottle Episodes” comes from early television production, and specifically Leslie Stevens the creator of the TV Series The Outer Limits.   A Bottle Episode is one where everything is shot on one stage, or location, and there are no guest stars or anything that would increase the budget.  The idea is that by restricting the scope, you minimize the budget, which can then be saved for more extravagant stories during the season.

Put simply – not every episode has equal budget. 

This fascinated me so much because I just had a conversation with a colleague of mine last month about content marketing budgets. It’s still amazing to me how many businesses still operate their marketing (or content marketing) budgets based on taking an annual, or quarterly budget and dividing the number equally by the number of months in that period.  Further still, that math continues down to the asset creation level.  My colleague had been tasked with creating six white papers in a given quarter. So – he had simply done the math and provided an equal weighting to those six papers.

I asked him why he’d done it this way, and his response was that he wasn’t sure what they would be yet, or where he’d source them.  So, he would try and get the first one as inexpensive as possible and save money along the way in case he needed to “overpay” for one of the ones that followed.

This is NOT the optimal way to do this.

It’s just simply more difficult to create extraordinary content if we let the budget tell us what stories we can tell (more or less) than if we plan our stories first – and then figure out which deserve bigger (or smaller) budgets.

In most businesses budgeting is a quarterly, or yearly, exercise where managers make a case for their needs and then (in many cases) get something less than what was requested. But, more importantly, once we know what that going forward budget is, this is now a tool we should utilize more frequently in our content planning.  Which of our “big rock” content will be our expensive, multi-set, special guest star episodes?  And which will be our “bottle episodes”.

In the Friends Reunion show, Marta Kauffman’s point about bottle episodes wasn’t just that they had to be conscious of budget during the annual planning process.  She was actually making the point that some of the Friends “bottle episodes” were some of the best episodes of the series.

You don’t need a big budget to create extraordinary content. But sometimes, in order to be extraordinary, you do. Knowing which stories should get it, is a key part of the creation process.

It’s Your Story. Tell It Well.  



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