The Death of Mass Market Television–Hooray!

Steven Zeitchik of the Washington Post declares The TV hit isn’t just dying — it may already be dead. Is it? I will comment.

On one level, “Mare of Easttown” was a smashing success. The Pennsylvania-set crime series starring Kate Winslet inspired numerous memes, truckloads of media coverage and even a “Saturday Night Live” parody after it debuted on HBO in April. More importantly, thanks to its head-fake mysteries and town with more secrets than beer bottles, the show quadrupled its audience between its premiere and its finale.

I saw no memes for Mare, and no media coverage past the trailer on JoBlo, which looked dull as hell. Who watches “Saturday Night Live”? It’s been garbage for years. In Canada, HBOmax is unavailable. This show is probably available on Crave TV, but I don’t subscribe to that service.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that its audience began modestly enough that even with all that growth, the finale was watched by only 4 million people over Memorial Day weekend. For all its buzzy enthusiasm and hardcore fan interest, the “Mare” finale was not seen that weekend by nearly 99 percent of Americans.

Clarice, a series based on the blockbuster Silence of the Lambs, started out with an audience of 4 million, so for a show about a quirky small town detective to end with 4 million is impressive. Clarice went on to lose viewers, ending the season with 2 million and a cancellation. But wait, you say, this proves the point that shows can’t become hits anymore. Sorry, Clarice was just garbage. I managed to get through one episode.

The television hit — the most abiding of entertainment traditions — appears to be dying. That isn’t to say shows don’t have fans; they do, and some of them are more passionate than ever. But according to its long-standing definition — a universally recognized show that gathers a large, verifiable audience and becomes unavoidable in all the places people talk about television and endures well beyond its run — the TV hit is vanishing.

What about the Mandalorian or The Witcher? These genre series are both widely discussed, had large audiences, and remain hot topics even between seasons. And don’t say genre series don’t count, as you are about to mention one.

That is true not just, as is commonly lamented, on broadcast, but also according to the lower standards of subscription television. Just two years ago, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” gathered 20 million viewers to watch its finale. Nothing on the current pay-TV landscape would stand a chance of coming close.

HBO has lower standards than broadcast? Are you on crack? The upcoming LOTR series on Prime could surpass GOT, though from what I’ve heard so far, I’m not optimistic. But just because a new powerhouse hasn’t arrived (in a time when production has been stalled and made very difficult by Covid) doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. For eff’s sake, it’s only been a couple of years.

“Every network or service now likes to talk about a big hit they have. But the question is, ‘compared to what?’” said Tom Nunan, a longtime Hollywood producer who currently has a show set up with a major streamer. “We live in the age of singles and doubles.”

Clearly, GOT is the current benchmark.

One of the biggest factors, he and others note, may be economic: the swing to subscription models, which favor engagement over broad popularity.

No they don’t. Every streaming service is looking to find its own Game of Thrones. Disney+ had the Mandalorian, Netflix tried with the Witcher, HBOmax is banking on LOTR, and CBS has Star Trek Discovery (yuck).

In recent months, shows like Disney Plus’ sitcom-homage Marvel piece “WandaVision,” Netflix’s fantasy series Shadow and Bone, Apple’s soccer-dramedy “Ted Lasso” and HBO Max’s odd-couple Vegas offering “Hacks” all gained cultural mind-share. If you watch these shows, it could seem like people are talking about them everywhere you go.

The only buzz on WandaVision was that it was bad. I managed to watch the first episode, and that was it. Shadow and Bone was incredibly bland. I made it through two episodes. I have never heard anyone talk about it. I’ve never heard of Ted Lasso or Hacks. Calling any of these a hit is a stretch (maybe Shadow and Bone, but that’s still some weak tea).

But “seem like” and “actually” are not the same. Viewership numbers for many of these series are fundamentally unknown. The fact that people are talking about them everywhere we go may say less about the shows than how, in this age of echo-chamber social media, most of us, figuratively speaking, aren’t going very far.

Nielsen rates streaming programs. The only knock against them is their very slow turn around time. In the third week of May, Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix was the clear winner with a billion minutes (roughly 20 million episodes) viewed. The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu was second with roughly 10 million views. Shadow and Bone was sixth, with about 5 million views. Twitter and Facebook are trash. Watch trailers on YouTube, find some reviewers you agree with, and some good movie/series blogs.

“There are still very interesting conversations happening around particular shows,” said Laura Grindstaff, a sociology professor at University of California at Davis, who studies popular culture. “But they’re happening with a lot fewer people.” Asking 200 students each semester to name their favorite show, Grindstaff has found smaller groups behind any one show in recent years. Instead, she is confronted with pockets of very different shows, often from obscure creators.

This is a good thing.

The new culture of the niche, in other words, may have increased the number of voices. But it makes it nearly impossible for us to speak to one another.

What? You don’t need to watch the same crap on TV to be able to speak to another person.

The shrinking audience even for TV’s documentable hits has been a trend for years. In the early 2000s, fewer people watched the top NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” than had watched “Seinfeld” a decade earlier. In the 2010s, NBC’s “The Office” drew fewer viewers than “Will & Grace” had as people moved from broadcast to cable and then streaming.

Will & Grace sucked. A lot of people watched the Office.

In a way this is just math: A greater number of shows means fewer people to watch any one of them.

Bingo!

“If you’re Netflix, it makes a lot more sense to have five small shows that are liked by five different family members than one show that all five family members can watch together,” said a Hollywood agent who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the news media. “You’re much less likely to unsubscribe from the service in the first option. There’s always going to be something someone wants.”

This may be true for retention, but to attract new customers, you need compelling content.

The TV hit, in other words, isn’t just scarce: It’s structurally impossible.

Wrong.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s co-chief executive, is fond of explaining on the company’s earning calls that the service wants to have “everyone’s” favorite show but is fine with those shows all being very different. Nunan calls this “intentional narrowcasting.”

I guarantee if every customer had their favourite show on Netflix, some of those shows would be massive hits. I thought Stranger Things season 1 was great. Apparently a lot of people did. Netflix takes a bunch of small risks, but when they find something people like, they generally bet bigger. This is a better way of finding hits than setting out to create something with mass market appeal, which usually results in something boring and bland.

The networks still try to sometimes succeed at [designing for a broad audience], say experts, particularly CBS, which has sitcoms such as “Young Sheldon” and action dramas such as “NCIS.” But by now, broadcast has generally bled too many viewers to pull off viewing events of truly broad scope.

Young Sheldon and NCIS are garbage. CBS has complete sh*t the bed with Star Trek, allowing Seth Rogan to create a competing science fiction series that’s much truer to the original than Bad Robot’s “Kurtzman Trek”. CBS has a streaming service, recently renamed from “CBS All Access” to Paramount+. I don’t know anyone who subscribes to it.

“Sheldon”closed its season just two years ago with an average of nearly 15 million viewers but fell to under 10 million viewers this year. Some of broadcast-television’s biggest recent phenomena such as Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” have seen their numbers basically cut in half in 2020-2021.

And in a time when most of us are stuck at home. But, as I said, Sheldon is garbage. I’ve never heard of the Masked Singer, but it has two things I loathe, celebrities and its a reality TV show. I don’t think that either of these falling off a ratings cliff should be a surprise.

One of the few exceptions — for now — is the drama of live athletics such as the NFL, which continued its dominance with the two most-watched regular prime time shows on broadcast television during the 2020-2021 season, or reality franchises such as “The Bachelor” and “Real Housewives,” sports of a different kind.

Last year’s superbowl had its lowest viewership (including streaming views) since 2007. Season 25 of the Bachelor averaged just under 5 million US viewers per episode where as last year had between 6 to 8 million people tuning in, according to Nielsen. In 2020, the regular episodes of RHOBH season 10 reached a high of 1.64 million viewers and dropped to a low of 1.3 million. The previous season, season nine, reached a season-high of 1.82 million viewers and a low of 1.54 million.

Part of the challenge is that even if cable or streaming had a broad hit, there would be little way to know it. None of the streamers have a history of being monitored by objective ratings services, leading to circumspect news releases and questionable metrics. With no official measure, a sense of a show’s audience is mainly left to memes and outside research firms. There is a movement — slowly — to introduce harder data.

No one finds good programs via their Nielsen ratings. Even if they did, Nielsen rates streamers. Grace Randolph reviews their top ten every week on her Beyond the Trailer YouTube channel.

“Viewers have a lot more choice, and that’s going to have an effect on the attention any one show commands,” said Casey Bloys, content chief for both HBO and HBO Max. But he doesn’t think this necessarily means catering to narrower bases. “When you’re developing, you never think ‘it’s just going to be a single, so I’ll stop there,’” he said.

Maybe you should. Joss Wheadon learned this lesson the hard way with Firefly. The majority of English television series are made in stand-alone batches usually of six hour long episodes. Too many once great series end up dying with a whimper because the writers are working without a planned ending. Lost, Dexter, and Supernatural all come to mind.

“For 50 years or so,” said Preston Beckman, a former executive at Fox and NBC who helped create NBC’s “Must-See-TV” block, “TV was created based on its ability to aggregate large audiences and deliver that audience to advertisers. But I don’t think that has to be the case. I don’t get drunk thinking about how much better the good old days were.”

They weren’t that good. This is the golden age of television. One can finally say that long form serials have, in many cases, surpassed film. Now, producers need to learn when to say they aren’t ready do to a new season of a series until they have a great idea that’s at least as good as the one they had for the last season.

“Decades ago you could disagree with someone on virtually everything and still both sing the theme song to ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. “That common ground is gone.”

And thanks God for that. What a great example of something no one should miss.

“I think for a lot of marginalized groups who’ve never had their stories told in the mainstream, the atomization has been pretty affirming,” said Grindstaff, the UC Davis professor. “Because what kind of stories were we getting when there just were a few big hits? Too many that were interesting just to straight, White males.”

Grindstaff is a racist and a sexist. Clearly she hasn’t watched TV recently. It is thoroughly dominated by content designed for women, and racial diversity has never been higher. What real people want is good content. Most people don’t care if that content is anime from Japan or foreign film or series with subtitles, as long as it’s entertaining.

But she also sees a danger in the death of the big hit. A viewer who was watching “All In the Family” or “Roots” in the 1970s, she said, might be confronted by their own biases. Now, someone can sail through a lifetime of television without encountering alternative points of view.

The purpose of television is to entertain, not to force people to see alternative points of view. If it happens to do so, hopefully in an entertaining way, as shows like Star Trek used to, so much the better, but if it doesn’t entertain, no one will watch it. If you want to get an alternative point of view across, make a really good movie or series.

“When I first got to Hollywood I went and saw a screening at the Writers Guild theater of ‘Rocky,’ ” said Shamberg. “No one knew what it was, and Sylvester Stallone stood at the door of the theater. A year later it won Best Picture and was a unifier in popular culture. Forty-five years later we still talk about it and make movies in that world. So many TV shows used to do the same thing. I don’t know what shows from now we’ll still be talking about in 45 years,” he said. “Tiger King?”

I hope “Tiger King” was a joke (because it was). We will be talking about the shows that are great. If Amazon’s LOTR series is as good as Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, we’ll be talking about it. If it’s worse that “The Hobbit”, we won’t. If “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is a worthy prequel to classic Trek, we’ll be talking about it. If it’s of the same strain as STD and Picard, we won’t. It’s simple: to have a hit, make something great. If in the process, you make something good, that’s OK. Don’t make something bland and boring because you’re trying to appeal to a mass market.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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