A recent Wall Street Journal Article on the “New Media Crisis of 1949” shows how other observers are also seeing the obvious. That people are changing in the ways they consume entertainment, and that the old models of niche entertainment and de-massification are failing. With people having radically different modes of consuming entertainment, driven both by technology and by the economy, the idea that entertainment can be walled off into separate playgrounds for different demographic groups is dying in the reality of winners and losers, with re-massification of the culture appearing on the horizon.
This change, like that of 1949, will create winners and losers that will not be obvious from the start, and create a world as different to today’s as the world of 1955 was to say, 1948.
The Wall Street Journal article argues there were three central lessons to “New Media” that apply from the fairly rapid switch, from 1949 to 1950, in which audiences abandoned radio for television. First, that the radio networks had to heavily subsidize the New Media for some fairly heavy financial losses. Second, that the New Media had to be connected or networked (i.e. made available nationally), and third that winners in New Media were those who could adapt to the changing conditions, mainly visual, that the New Media demanded of performers and producers. Radio humorist Fred Allen, for example, could famously not adapt, while movie actors / radio personalities Bob Hope and Jack Benny could adapt.
Like everything else, the history of the transition from radio to television offers only a rough guide. It’s clear that broadcast networks are in trouble. The demographics for ABC, NBC, and CBS are all showing median audience ages above 50, with Fox not far behind. This is an eight-year increase from 1999, when the media age was 43. Partly this is due to the aging of America, and the results of the Birth Dearth. But partly it is due to the Networks inability to produce all-ages programming, with shows that have no appeal to children and young adults. CBS had a median age for its audience of 55, the first time it had risen outside the 25-54 demographic. ABC was 51, NBC was 49, Fox was 46, and the CW was 34 (this from the network showing “Gossip Girl.”) Meanwhile TBS has a median age of 35, down from 38 a few years ago, and TNT, and USA have median ages of 44 and 46 respectively. UPDATE: Roslyn Bibby, VP Media Relations at FX Networks advises that the figure of 46 for the median age I gave was incorrect, the age is 37.5 primetime and 35.7, making it significantly younger than it’s cable competition. I thank FX Networks for their information and apologize for the error. DVR usage is intriguingly, between 8 and ten years younger on average for each network, and DVR/time-shifted viewing can account for as much as 30% for shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” and “the Office.”
Younger consumers like viewing television shows on DVRs, or online, according to their schedule, not the networks. It is also clear that reality shows like “Dancing with the Stars” (median age 56) skew significantly older than scripted entertainment like “How I Met Your Mother” (median age 45). While reality shows are cheap, and do draw mass audiences, the audiences tend to be older, and the resale value of reality approaches zero. Networks and studios cannot re-run them, cannot syndicate them, and cannot sell them on DVDs or generate revenue from them online.
Meanwhile, mass-appealing shows on Basic Cable networks have done favorably this Summer when compared to Broadcast TV ratings. Shows such as “the Closer” and “Burn Notice” would rank at #10 to #13 or so at Broadcast TV ratings, with around 7.8 million to 7.6 million viewers. USA has done well with it’s more mass-appealing “Characters Welcome” shows such as “Monk,” “Burn Notice,” “Royal Pains,” and “In Plain Sight.” Even SyFy, after a name change that alienated core male viewers, and lots of bad, low-budget movies “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octupus,” plus an emphasis on female-friendly fantasy, has won back viewers with broadly appealing shows such as “Warehouse 13.”
Cable has clearly been helped by the switch to digital broadcasting, which prompted some consumers to simply sign up for or keep cable. But the Broadcast networks diet of reality shows, repeats, and little else other than NFL pre-Season games has also provided mass cable networks with the ability to draw both male and female viewers alike, with ratings competitive to Broadcast networks, and significantly younger audiences. Broadcast networks used to show series such as “the A-Team” or “the Cosby Show” which would draw a wide variety of viewers, from kids to adults, each enjoying the show on it’s own level. This was part of the mass-culture which helped create and maintain common values in a large and geographically diverse nation. The networks endless focus on the wealthy Yuppie/SWPL (“Stuff White People Like” from the website and book of the same name by Christian Lander) has ironically made their audiences older because few if any children watch. TBS is “younger” because many tween girls hurry home from school to watch re-runs (with the explicit sex scenes and language taken out, but little else) of “Sex and the City.” Yes, really.
Melissa Benjamin, a 16-year-old from Chappaqua, N.Y., says that her three best friends got advance tickets to see the movie Friday because they watched the show for hours in middle school. “We’d come home at 3:30 p.m. and watch until 9 o’clock on HBO on Demand,” she says. “We’d like to say which character we all thought we were most like. Secretly,” she confides, “I really relate to Carrie, but my other friend wanted to be Carrie.”
While tween and teen girls can be entranced by visions of adult female sexuality (and sexual power), and cable networks like TBS take advantage of this craving for female power fantasies among younger viewers, until recently there was very little in the way of fantasies for male teens and pre-teen boys. Clearly USA with male-skewing shows such as “Burn Notice” and SyFy with “Warehouse 13” offer for the first time fantasies about male power: being able to fight, lead others, and demonstrate attraction (sexual and romantic) to beautiful and desirable women. This is not rocket science, and something Hollywood used to churn out from Republic Western serials, to radio shows, to TV Westerns and science fiction (“Gunsmoke” and “Star Trek”) to well, “the A-Team.”
And then, in the go-go 1990’s, television broadcast networks simply forgot how to appeal to men and boys, flush in the enormous amounts of money advertisers would pay to reach members of what Kay Hymnowitz in City-Journal.org dubbed “the New Girl Order.” Now that times are hard, and advertisers can no longer depend on the vast amounts of money single young women with disposable incomes spent on fashion and cosmetics, male audiences matter. A lot.
It is true that shows such as “Mad Men” or Tru Blood create a lot of media attention. But the ratings are still, relatively anemic (4.3 million vs. say, 7.6 million season average for “Burn Notice”), and when comparing shows like “Weeds” (1.6 million) and “Nurse Jackie” (1.4 million) the “edgy/hip” shows that appeal mostly to women are not making the grade compared to the Basic Cable shows like “Burn Notice” or “Royal Pains.” These shows clearly are marketing devices to create “buzz” and media notice, not actual revenue from advertisers to reach actual consumers. Instead, Premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime gain most of their revenues from subscriber fees, regardless if anyone watches. While this still characterizes basic cable network revenues, the trend is important. Nearly as many people are watching Basic Cable new dramatic series as they are Broadcast network re-runs, reality shows, and sports. Critically, younger audiences like to watch scripted series on their own schedule, through DVRs or the internet. While creators such as Tru Blood’s Alan Ball, the openly gay writer/producer behind “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” have shown the ability to attract critical attention and some female audiences, they have not been able to generate much in the way of male audiences. Which is understandable, gay men have little understanding of the nature of straight life, from family ties and responsibility, to the competition among men for the limited pool of available and desirable women. “Tru Blood” for all the ink spilled on its behalf, has never been able to generate the type of audience that either “Royal Pains” or “Burn Notice” has, let alone a broadcast show like “the Mentalist” which received 22 million viewers at its height during the first-run season. Indeed the concentration of gays in television and movie producing is problematic, as folks like Ball or “Superman Returns” producer/director Bryan Singer (also openly gay) simply lack the ability to connect with men, their concerns, or values.
From all of this, we can find several lessons.
First, no one section of the audience can be ignored. Seniors and kids both matter, because it’s not the 1980’s anymore and there is no giant wave of twenty-somethings coming into their own. The 1980’s were in fact the last crash of the baby-boom wave, with twenty somethings born in the 1970’s, and those born in the 1980’s noticeably fewer in number than those born in the late 1940’s to the mid 1960’s. While there is room for say both an updated version of “the Golden Girls” and the cable network “Noggin” (appealing to young children) most successful media will draw in young and old viewers alike. Along these lines, shows must appeal to both men and women, boys and girls as well. For men and boys, the lead characters must be people they’d like to become, if only for 42 minutes or so (screen time minus commercials). This means the characters must be able to fight (but not enjoy fighting), lead others (but not abuse them or take advantage) and be seen as a good and natural leader, and attract female attention by desirable characters. For women and girls, the female leads must be strong and independent, positive, possessed of a powerful intelligence, and able to handle herself in almost any situation.
This is essentially Western culture from the Odyssey to “the Avengers.” One in which men and women participate in rough equality, neither dominating the other, each having unique strengths. It represents neither the Playboy-esque “bimbo” caricature of women nor the “Twilight/Buffy” ugly parody of masculinity. As disconnected and alienated as the sexes are in the younger cohorts (ages 16-36 or so) of the population, the demonstrated response to anything that remotely meets this criteria, particularly with “Burn Notice” is encouraging.
It is highly probable that winners and losers will be determined who provides this content, critically in ways that everyone can consume the entertainment. On cable or broadcast networks. Available for viewing free on the internet. Downloaded to computers, laptops, or cell phones for free (with product placement ads such as in “Eureka” or “Chuck”). Available on DVD for rent or purchase, with “extras” such as cast/creator interviews, deleted scenes, etc. The “means” of convenience (and cost, it’s clear most people won’t pay for premium cable) matter. But matching the convenience is the content. Only mass-culture players will be winners. There just isn’t enough young people or money any more for it to be any other way.