Abbott Elementary is one of the biggest network TV success stories in years. Quinta Brunson’s show has set ratings records, was a sensation at the Emmys and is appointment viewing for Black Twitter. But ironically, Quinta has made it a point for her show not to sound like a trending topic on the social media network.
“People were tired of seeing their Twitter regurgitated back to them through their viewing,” Brunson told The New York Times in a March 2022 interview. It’s a unique perspective to hear from a self-proclaimed child of the internet, but she’s right. The 32-year-old creator understands her show’s purpose, its audience, and the opportunities that others miss in the video streaming era.
lessons learned as a full-time creator
Quinta’s first claim to fame was becoming the first person to go viral from an Instagram video. In 2014, “He got money!” was a social media sensation. She blew up like a one-TikTok-wonder that just got a record deal. Brunson sold a bunch of merch, spent all her money fast, went broke, then got a job at BuzzFeed where she went into full-time creator mode.
At BuzzFeed she created and starred in Broke, then sold it to YouTube. She soon made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Her resume was long, but internet fame was taking its toll.
“The truth was, the more pop culture I ate up, the more I wasted away as a person,” she wrote in her book She Memes Well, “I wasn’t me anymore.”
Content creation is all-consuming. Creators live on the internet, create on the internet, and find inspiration from other creators on the internet. The cycle never stops, and it’s hard to step off that treadmill.
Quinta left BuzzFeed in 2021. As a TV viewer herself, she had already preferred traditional TV shows more than YouTube shows, likely because they are further removed from the “content creator” lifecycle. But Quinta’s internet-centric experience made it easier to identify the opportunities on network TV, which led to the creation of Abbott Elementary.
reaching the overlooked majority
With Abbott, Quinta found two opportunities. First, she identified the white space in network television. Here’s a segment of her February 2022 interview with Vanity Fair:
“Network television, if I’m being honest, was just getting super formulaic, and I think that’s what made it not feel cool anymore. Then streaming came out…and then all the comedies started getting super dark—because that became cool, for the comedies to get dark and pretty. Which is fine! But they’re dark. You can’t watch ’em with the whole family…. It’s not going to give you the same laughs as a network comedy.”
If all the good creators are making shows for HBO, then who is making good shows for network TV and the larger audience it reaches? Coastal elites often forget that a campy, ridiculous show like Fox’s The Masked Singer is watched by twice as many people as HBO’s critical darling, Succession. Linear television’s audience may be declining, but it’s still the best way to reach the masses. And if The Masked Singer is putting up solid ratings, then a quality show on a primetime network will likely do even better.
Second, Abbott also works because Quinta told a common story through a different lens. There have been dozens of TV shows set in schools, but most are focused on the students. Few, if ever, focus on the teachers. Here’s another segment from her The New York Times interview:
“We are talking about this school, these people in West Philly. They have a job to do. They don’t have time to sit down and have an articulate debate. I think that was refreshing for people — because the debate stuff entered television, but it’s rarely how people outside of New York and Los Angeles are talking. Then I also think that we’re giving people slice-of-life stories. We’re not talking about being Black all day. It’s a show about these people’s lives.”
the “shiny new toys” don’t make sense to everyone
This narrative also works because Quinta’s not alone. Even the people who debate social politics want a breath of fresh air! That life is exhausting. The 22 minutes that viewers spend in the Abbott Elementary classrooms is an opportunity to reset their palate and take a deep breath before they pick their phone back up to scroll through the feed.
Many creators and founders tend to gravitate to the new shiny toys. That’s where the upside is. If you started a successful YouTube channel in 2010 or a podcast in 2014, you likely rode a wave of exponential growth with the medium itself. But that’s also where the risk is. If you started a popular Clubhouse room in 2020, then you rolled through the highs and lows.
The never-ending quest for an early-mover advantage also creates an innovation gap. If your target customers aren’t enthusiasts or innovators themselves, then it will take a while to reach your addressable market. This presents a great opportunity for the builders–like Quinta– who understand how shiny new toys work but can apply those principles to existing platforms where the masses are already at.
It’s why platforms like LinkedIn–the network TV of social media apps– are still viable channels for content creators. Despite its cringeworthy content, it has outlasted many sexier apps that aimed to be the next big thing and never got there.
Abbott’s success is a testament to that. Plus, the show still gets praise on Twitter without ever catering to Twitter. That’s the ultimate flex.
the better the work, the easier it is to say no
Since Abbott took off, several viewers have asked the show to do more. Quinta has gotten problematic requests to have a school shooting episode following the Uvalde shooting in Texas, or critiques that the show is undramatic. Both requests show a lack of understanding of what the show is about. But Quinta’s clear on what the show is, and what it isn’t.
“Saying no” is a sign of quality work. It empowers creators to be choosy about what they do next. They have the leverage, the audience connection, and the confidence in what they already are doing. There’s less need to sift through the noise to get to the signal. They are the signal.
This is a challenge for many creators and the networks they rely on. How many social networks have copied each other’s features? The running joke is that Snapchat and TikTok’s product managers set the strategy for all social media companies since the other networks just copy them. It stems from the desire to please everyone, which leads to pleasing no one.
The OutKast Edge of Abbott Elementary
In 2021, I introduced The OutKast Edge, a theory on how slept-on trends become popular and sustain their edge over time. Entertainers like Tyler The Creator, Tyler Perry, and Issa Rae all had it. Quinta wasn’t slept on—she literally blew up after a viral post— but it took eight years to reach the levels of success she’s attained. She has each of the three elements down:
– Create content for like-minded outsiders. Ironically, the outsiders for an internet-centric millennial like Quinta are the majority of U.S. viewers who still watch network television. Quinta made this show with her family and teachers in mind. But she also made it for folks like her who wanted a welcomed break from any content that makes them feel like they are still scrolling through Twitter. Nowadays, shows like these have become outliers compared to the majority of prestige-era content that tries to impress other screenwriters and Twitter critics.
– Build an audience on independent platforms. From Instagram to YouTube to BuzzFeed, Quinta had a following on various platforms before Abbott. Her Why I Left BuzzFeed video has over 1 million views. She once said she got recognized on the street more than her friends who had traditional TV shows at the time! She did gain a lot of new fans through ABC’s reach, but she had a lot of people riding with her before that.
– Play the long game: Persevere and push through. It takes dedication to the craft to stay involved after going broke, riding the BuzzFeed wave, and still taking a big leap. She’s a true product of this content creator era.
She checks all the boxes.
Abbott is now in its second season. Expectations are high. But unlike past shows entering season 2, Quinta understands her show’s purpose. This isn’t a “surprise hit” that’s trying to recreate the magic. This has stemmed from nearly a decade of finding the best opportunities, looking where others aren’t, and only saying “yes” when it matters most.