We recently had a discussion about the future of television and a la carte channels. One of the arguments against a la carte is that the current system works, everybody gets what they want by subsidizing everyone else… so why change it?
Well, simply put, the current system doesn’t work. Not really. Cable networks and producers don’t use the technologies they have to find the audiences they need. And a recent TV obsession of mine, Longmire — an A&E drama about a Wyoming sheriff — and how I found it, illustrates why.
If you haven’t seen Longmire, I recommend giving the first season a shot; it’s streaming on Netflix. It starts out as a slightly arty murder-of-the-week show that uses its rural setting in fairly clever ways, but slowly turns into, of all things, a cross between a noir and an unreconstructed modern Western about grown men struggling with their emotional inadequacies and unfinished business. It’s anchored by a quiet, understated performance from character actor Robert Taylor and a snarky, angry Lou Diamond Phillips as his best friend. It has some of the weaknesses of mystery shows but the strengths make up for it.
Here’s the problem: I’d literally never heard of this show. I never saw an ad. It never came up in a recommendation engine. I had to stumble across it on Netflix streaming.
Why? Because according to “demographic data,” I wouldn’t be interested. I’m what the networks would call a “peripheral demographic.” As far as the marketing executives involved in selling Longmire are concerned, I’m no different from women watching science fiction shows or bronies; I’m the weirdo that doesn’t fit their carefully crafted plan, so I don’t matter. To them, there’s no functional difference between this show and Murder, She Wrote.
The simple fact of the matter is that networks do not want to listen to their audiences, and demographics are often used as an excuse for that. Keep in mind that 18-to-35 year old men, supposedly a prized demo, have been communicating, loudly and clearly, that they really love edgy animated comedies like Archer and everything Adult Swim puts out, and broadcast networks have responded with… Dads and We Are Men.
Granted, demographics are important; advertisers want to aim their message as narrowly as possible to the people who have the most money, for obvious reasons. And streaming technologies are still a drop in the bucket; Netflix has 30 million streaming subscribers, while cable companies have 55% of all American households on the hook.
That said, as streaming expands and cable shrinks, an important shift will happen, and audiences will take control. Take Longmire: I bought the second season on Amazon Instant Video… and I’ll sign up to buy episodes of the third season once it premieres. On my own, big whoop. I’m just the peripheral demographic.
But consider this: Your average TV show is made at a deficit. The network pays a license fee, and the producer has to use ownership of the show to make up the rest, which is why Longmire is on Netflix. But if two to three million people sign up for a TV pass at two bucks a pop, for many scripted shows, that’s an average episode paid for right out of the gate. Yeah, it’s not potential DVD sale money, but there’s nothing accountants love more than money in the bank.
We haven’t seen that yet. But it’s really only a matter of time before a show is in a position where it’s the fans paying the bills, and the network suddenly has no leverage.