Being missed

Judging by the number of advertisements I see that are obviously not targeted at me and the number of products I really enjoy that I discover by mechanisms other than advertisements, I clearly don’t fit into the current advertising demographic system very well. I am, in short, being missed, in spite of being a 18-34 year old male with a decent disposable income.

Until recently, I assumed this was caused by a skewed sense of taste, called “eclectic” by some (others have called it “strange”, “whacked”, “bizarre” and “crazy”). After all, I reasoned, most people don’t have Citizen Kane, Akira, Bubba Ho-tep, Monsters Inc., Wings of Desire and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death in their DVD collection. This, however, is wrong. A significant collection of people (probably much larger than you think it is) find nothing at all unusual about that collection. This group is certainly much larger than advertisers think it is.

Recommendations often come my way to watch movies or TV shows I’ve never heard of with the caveat “I think you would love it”. These recommendations almost always involve something that didn’t do very well or got canceled. The last such recommendation was for a science fiction series, a TV show called Firefly. I’d never even heard of it (evidently I’m in the “wrong demographic”), but based on this recommendation, I bought the complete season on DVD. My wife and I intended to watch one episode every few days or so. Within about 10 minutes into the first show, this plan went out the window and we watched the entire series back to back over the course of a weekend, forgoing much needed sleep to do so. It was, quite simply, the best sci-fi I’ve ever seen grace television. I’ve never seen a show with writing, production and characterization that tight so early in its run. Even compared to all other genres, from any time period, I’d place it well into the top 10. It was canceled by Fox after half a season, citing low ratings.

Two years later, Serenity, a movie version of Firefly, is in post-production. Tellingly, this film is being distributed by Universal, not Fox. Somehow, a “low ratings” TV show has enough fans to warrant spending $35 million to make a film version. You can read a lot into this, but it suggests to me that either the TV ratings systems or Fox management (or both) are seriously flawed. The vocal, young, money-spending fans of this show were, in short, being missed.

Firefly was produced by Ben Edlund, creator of another brilliant show canceled by Fox: the animated version of the Tick. While this show was on the air, a large proportion of the people I knew at the time watched and loved it. To my knowledge, this show has never been officially released on DVD, but if it ever is, it’s sales will stun the company that releases it (as many bootleggers are discovering). You could go on about any number of shows that were markedly better than anything else on television at the time (Twin Peaks, Farscape, Get A Life, etc.) It’s fans were, and still are, being missed.

So, how can this “lost demographic” make itself known? A couple of half baked solutions:

Solution One: Stop using TiVo

It occurs to me is that common theme in a lot of these shows is that they catered to an audience that was significantly smarter (or, perhaps, more curious) than the people who canceled them. I don’t mean that in a bitter, ironic way. I’m suggesting that it is literally true. Unfortunately, this audience is the kind of smart that has figured out that watching advertisements is a completely avoidable downside of the television experience. Furthermore, most of them do not watch shows when they air, but at a time more convenient to them. Both of these habits are made possible by TiVo and other DVRs.

By being smart enough to avoid seeing ads, this audience has made itself completely inconsequential to advertisers. They have no incentive to give money to a show to place an ad they know will not be watched. Shows that appeal to such an audience, therefore, are not as profitable to a broadcast network. Additionally, TiVo viewing may not register in ratings (though I may be wrong on this one). Ultimately, the already small number of shows that would speak to this audience will dwindle to nothing.

The economics suggest a more broad approach as well…

Solution Two: Convince Advertisers Directly

When shows get canceled, the fan base tends to hurl their outrage on the network. This energy could be better spent convincing advertisers to buy time in a show. Convince them there is a hidden demographic that wants to know about their products and they’ll buy ad time. The networks will be baffled, but they’ll be happy.

Solution Three: Pay

It may be that the economics of broadcast television simply select against smart audiences. It is no coincidence that some of the better shows on television right now are on a network that doesn’t follow the broadcast model: HBO. They make money through subscriptions, so they have an incentive to make shows that are good, not shows that have mass appeal to certain types of people. I’m not saying they don’t care about demographics, but anyone who pays a subscription is just as good to them as any other. This is not the view that advertisers have of viewers.

So do we start our own subscription network? Do we pitch shows to HBO? I’m not sure. Certainly Stargate SG-1 had success with Showtime. The recent campaign to get fans to pay for an additional season of Enterprise could have interesting fallout (though, in my opinion, the show doesn’t seem worth the effort).

Solution Four: Hack the ratings systems

I don’t know enough about how the ratings systems work to figure out how a group of dedicated viewers might be able to adjust their representation in such a system, but it seems like the root problem is that we are invisible to these systems, so the obvious solution is to change this.

Solution Five: Assimilation

One reason this demographic is lost is that it stealths into genres it is not expected. For example, a decent-sized portion of this demographic loves professional wrestling. Well, “loves” might be a strong word. “Appreciates” might be better. Most, however, are far removed from the average WWF fan. This is difficult to articulate, but it’s as if we like the idea of professional wrestling more than the execution, digging the sort of crass social manipulation it uses to entertain, the sheer will and cojones it takes to parley a talent for getting hit in the face with a metal chair into your own cult of personality. Anyone who views the Undertaker and his wraith-like manager as geniuses of self-marketing knows what I mean.

As difficult as it is for me to describe this love of low-brow entertainment for reasons only tangentially related to the entertainment itself, it appears even more difficult for Madison Avenue to understand it. Marketing is defined by putting people into boxes, and we don’t fit very well into any of them. A cure for this may be to become one with the advertising industry. My pity goes out to those that volunteer for this assignment.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that advertisers don’t see us. Maybe we can use that to our advantage somehow. I’ll have to think about that.