New Delhi: Chris Anderson who owns TED, a non-profit organizing ideas-based talks and conferences, was in India on a three-day visit to launch the first televised version of the popular content format, to be hosted by actor Shah Rukh Khan in association with leading broadcaster Star India. Anderson, who lived in India for seven years as child, said, “Often, the most surprising and inspiring talks are the ones that are held in quite difficult circumstances like prisons and slums. Ideas are relevant everywhere.” In an interview, Anderson talks about the new show, what constitutes a TED speaker, and his larger vision for the brand. Edited Excerpts:
What led to the idea for a televised format for TED, is it a more financially sustainable business model?
Our first consideration is, is it mission-aligned? Our mission is to spread ideas. From that point of view, it could not be more mission-aligned. The scale and importance of India in the world, the chance to do the talks in Hindi at scale for the first time, it’s a thrilling opportunity. I think people are going to decide that it’s really riveting television.
Will the television show follow the conventional TED format of 18 minutes per speaker?
Increasingly, our talks have been getting shorter. Many talks are either 12 minutes or 9 minutes. And for television, you definitely don’t want 18-minute talks going on. The format is the unique thing. There are some surprises in there. We feel it beautifully respects our brand values while adding a bit of magic, some of that comes from Shah Rukh Khan who is an extraordinary host. And part of it comes from the production and preparation work done by the whole team.
How does TED select and screen its speakers?
We are deepening that process every year. We have a team of about 15-16 curators including some specialist curators in different areas like science, business and design. Anyone can go on to our website and apply to be a TED speaker. We get about 25,000 or more applications a year and some of those do make it onto the TED stage. Although there is a lot of incoming for us to take account for. Each year at our main conference, we have a theme. Next year the theme is—age of amazement—and you can interpret that in lots of different ways. The world is going a little crazy which is amazing but there is also extraordinary technologies being developed. I think the future is going to certainly be remarkable. Many of the best talks come from the most unexpected sources so we love hearing from anyone.
What’s your larger vision for brand TED?
It’s just to do all that we can to unleash the power of ideas. I believe that at a fundamental level, ideas, when you think about it the right way, are what separates humans from other species. It’s amazing and miraculous to me that we are able to simulate the world inside our heads. This picture of how the world is and unlike almost any other species we can intentionally play with it and imagine something better or different. And then, we can communicate that to other people. We can plant that same alternate vision into someone else’s head. The fact that you can do that is really amazing. This is how humans have shaped the world. It’s why we have become the most successful species on the planet because someone could stand up and say to others, look—this is my dream, this is what I can do, this is how I can make things better. The fact that you can scale that now, that you can take that communication ability and make it available to millions of people around the world, that’s never happened before.
Are there any other international markets where you may want to get into television?
It’s one step at a time. This is by far the most ambitious partnership we have had with a television company. We really feel there is a meeting of minds here and a shared purpose. We absolutely have hopes that this will be hugely successful and it will spark other similar initiatives in other countries. But what an amazing place to start with here in India. For now, we are excited just to push this as far as it will go.
How has the business model for TED evolved over the last 17 years since you acquired it?
TED started off as a conference with a simple business model where people paid to come and the fees covered the cost of the conference. When we put talks online, our fear initially was that we might risk killing the conference because why would people pay for an expensive conference if they can see the talks for free? Turned out to have the exact opposite effect, it really boosted the demand for the conference because so many more people got to know about it.
We are a non-profit, but we feel very fortunate because most of our costs are covered by accommodation of conference fees, business sponsorships and then there is a small part that’s covered by philanthropy. But over the years, we have been able to dramatically raise our level of investment in what we do and try and extend the mission in lots of different ways, through the fellowship program, the educational program and this TEDx initiative we have. They have been made possible because the rest of the operation has been flourishing…There are ten TEDx events everyday now across the world.
Where is the publishing business headed?
Print publishing definitely gets harder and harder. When you can send information free over the internet, it gets harder and harder to justify sending trucks across the country with print or paper. But what is always going to matter is knowledge. Publishing at the end of the day means knowledge and that gets only more important. Every mainstream publisher has to figure out how to publish in the digital age. There are lots of different models and as long as you remember what the core of your business is then its got a bring future. Knowledge only gets more interesting.
What are the most striking trends that you’ve observed in terms of media consumption?
There is a huge battle going on between what is the role of algorithm-driven media versus traditional media. I think what the world has realized is that its really dangerous to let algorithms do all the heavy lifting. Traditional journalistic judgement has a huge role to play in the world. The question is how do you create a business model that recognizes that.