Recently New York Magazine served up a cover feature called “Televisionaries” (you’d have noticed — and remembered — the cover shot of Betty White and Tracy Morgan) which offered a very unique premise: That the disintegration of TV’s mass audience, rather than signaling its demise, is actually fostering a creative renaissance.
“This decline (in network ratings) is so relentless that what was once the most mass entertainment medium around can now boast only one or two shows that can, in any real way, be considered mass.” In this new universe a show can get renewed by pleasing a niche audience of as few as 5-7 million viewers, providing life support for gems like 30 Rock, Breaking Bad, Modern Family and Mad Men. “Helped by the declining cost of production, TV right now is mass enough to be commercially viable and narrow enough to allow show creators to give free rein to their once -repressed geekery.”
So all our braying about how last week’s top rated show (The Big Bang Theory) has a tiny fraction of the audience rating Gunsmoke enjoyed 50 years ago simply misses the point. “Good” is now good enough. Which leads me back to the web.
All we ever seem to talk about in web marketing circles is the technology that will help us regather the television audience diaspora. In a world where mass is just a memory, we pine to become the new mass. Both network TV and basic cable channels seem to be doing fine with the new economics that surround TV’s creative renaissance, so is it possible that the smartypants web folks might just be missing the point? That by overvaluing our audience-aggregation technologies and undervaluing our audience-delighting creative instincts we might just be dressing for a game that nobody is playing anymore.
I know it’s not an either-or world, and that there’s plenty of gray area to argue about, but I think the central premise in a magazine article about television might be the meme that helps us relight the creative flame under the web and learn to once again sell the value of environments and content in a meaningful way.
Or as the very first line of “Televisionaries” puts it: “When all else fails, try being good.”