It used to be that the biggest shows on television were national events, cultural experiences shared by everyone with a television set.
That’s because those sets could only pick up a few networks, but the introduction of cable gave those televisions access to hundreds of new channels to plug into, giving their owners access to the niche interest of their choice. Internet distributors offer even more choices still.
Without question, TV is in the age of the niche. And that’s something to celebrate.
The danger of such an age, of course, is that with more choices available of what to watch, it is more possible than ever for one to mold their own personal media stream into echo chambers that reinforce their views and tastes.
But that argument breaks down in two ways.
First, it breaks down when we consider the experience of consumers. The proliferation of more voices means that even if one has their own favorite media streams, they are at least offered elevator pitches of new ideas in the form of social media posts and advertisements. Even if one is trying only to pay attention to their favorite perspectives, smaller voices have a broad stage in a way they never before have. It is impossible to select one’s favorite shows or channels without at least briefly considering the vast quantities of alternatives.
Second, it breaks down in the experience of creators. It used to be that the gatekeepers of ideas only let a very few voices through. With more, smaller gatekeepers comes more room for a diversity of viewpoints on the stage. Smaller voices that would never have seen the light of day before now can gain followings in the millions. They need to be sharper than ever on their elevator pitch, but if it’s a good pitch, consumers scrolling through their media buffet will notice — and they do.
Good for Consumers
We are in the golden age of television. Without these smaller markets, shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “Game of Thrones” — all cable shows — would not exist. Consumers can enjoy more sophisticated entertainment because of the niche channels.
We’ve written before about how much we love the new Comedy Central sitcom “Broad City.” Despite the show’s title, that show is fresh because of its specificity. Networks, not cable, remain suffocatingly broad in order to survive. With a wider array of channels, there is room for fresh takes on the sitcom format.
Good for Creators
It sure is a great time to be a television writer. Showrunners like Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) and Mitch Hurwitz (“Arrested Development”) are becoming household names. And they get to write from the heart, and make bold programming never before seen. No wonder the most artful shows in the 21st century are almost exclusively on cable, where the niche possibilities are found.
If you have an idea for a great show, you have a better chance than ever to get it made. And the strength of your idea means more than ever. Good ideas find their audience in the age of niche television.
Good for Business
At first, it might appear that smaller markets make smaller profits. But researchers have shown that the opposite is true. Niche demand over time can equate to much bigger numbers overall, a principle called the Long Tail that “Wired” writer Chris Anderson has written about at length.
The network model is all about the all-or-nothing live event. If you don’t get your viewers to watch right now, you’ve already lost. The Long Tail allows smaller products over time to win out if they are of high quality. Niche television, combined with on-demand services, are the way of the future.
Still a Shared Experience
It may be true that the single, universal shared cultural experience is gone. But its replacement, the vast array of mini shared experiences, should not be underestimated.
For one thing, they aren’t so little. Thousands or millions of fellow fans within any given niche can create situations of great camaraderie as they watch and tweet together.
Also, the actual experience of shared cultural experiences is no longer tethered to time. Recap blogs, podcasts, and social media make it possible to share the experience of watching iconic television with others no matter when you watch it.
Shared cultural experiences are not gone. They are just on demand.
Savvy media consumers would be wise to create a balanced media meal rather than only selecting choices that they know they will agree with. But that’s just it: now it’s them that gets to make that choice, not the gatekeepers of old that in a much truer sense turned televisions across the country into one narrow echo chamber.
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