Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mad Men: The Most Feminine (and Revealing) Show on Cable TV

A recent (Friday, August 7, 2009, Weekend Journal, P1) article in the Wall Street Journal contained a few odd hints about the future of cable Televsion. First, it's very girly. The AMC series "Mad Men" may be the most profoundly feminine show on cable. Second, almost no one watches the broadcasts. Third, considerably more will watch on downloads or video on demand, with profound implications as I've noted here and here.


Lets take the last point, since it's buried in the article and is not very obvious at first glance. According to the WSJ, "Mad Men" averaged just 1.5 million viewers per new episode at 10 p.m. last season, up 63% from 920,000 or so the previous season. The subject of much hype, buzz and Emmys (being the first basic cable series to win an Emmy for Best Drama and nominated for a total of 16 Emmys this year), its performance in first-run episodes was pathetic. If you were an advertiser, you were not happy with the results. You would not have gotten much bang for your buck.

However, AMC claims that more than 30 million viewers saw the show last year on downloads, video on demand, and first run plus repeat broadcasts, excluding DVD sales. The latter is expected to exceed $18 million in the first six months. With a limited, 13 episode run for Season Two, that amounts to about 19.5 million for the first-run new episode broadcasts, and about 10.5 million for all other media, including repeats and downloads, and video on demand. That still makes "Mad Men" a niche show, giving it the equivalent of 2.3 million viewers per broadcast, but shows the growth in consumption of of TV shows outside normal first-run broadcasts. Nearly 800,000 people watched the show outside the normal first-run broadcast, or about 35% of the show's total viewers per episode.

Clearly, if you are an advertiser, you want product placement as your ad, so people see it regardless, and ideally you want the entire show to feature your products or services, positively, in the way that original radio shows did back in the 1930's. At a nominal $40 per box set (Best Buy has it for $40 as of today's date, Amazon has it for $32, the list price is $50, I'll use Best Buy as the likely average retail price, you can plug in your own assumptions) that would imply purchase by an additional 400,000 consumers.

The basic economics are fascinating — consumers are increasingly looking to view hour long dramas the way the listen to music. Which is on their own terms, often on their own schedule, at their computers, on portable devices like Ipods and Phones, or on DVDs which are very convenient.

Advertisers are quite likely to respond to these changes in basic consumer behavior, and want ads embedded in the shows themselves, so that viewers see them whenever they the view the show. This also implies that free beats pay, given that advertisers want as many people as possible to see the shows. At an average production cost of say, $3 million per episode, "Mad Men" costs $39 million to produce, about half of that covered by AMC's licence fees, or around 19.5 million. The extra 18 million or so from DVD sales in the first six months (the time for highest volume of sales) brings the show to nearly break even. Which means that moving production to say, New Zealand or Canada could allow the show to make a small profit immediately. Even with niche content that is obviously, not very appealing to a wide audience. More importantly, there is no reason that advertisers, looking to cut through the clutter, and reach consumers directly, could not create "free" web-based downloads and low-cost DVDs for consumers wanting to view the content on their own time, freed from the tyranny of a broadcast or cable network schedule.

Naturally, this is a large risk for Cable networks, which derive most of their revenue not from ads, but from fees to cable and satellite operators. If advertisers move significant amounts of spending to their own, "dedicated" dramatic series, or comedies (which are cheaper to film, being only a half the running time of dramas), Cable networks would be totally dependent on fees from satellite and cable networks. An unhealthy place for any business.

At any rate, even in a niche show like "Mad Men," the changing ways in which consumers watch dramas is evident in the numbers. Nearly 35% of the total viewers saw the show in a way other than watching the first-run broadcast.

That "Mad Men" of course is one of the girliest, most feminine shows on Cable TV there is no doubt:


[Click to Enlarge]

The Mad Men writers, from left to right, are: Marti Noxon, Lisa Albert, Kater Gordon, Dahvi Waller, Robin Veith, Cathryn Humphris, Maria Jacquemetton, at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

Seven of the nine writers are women. Women directed five of the 13 episodes in the Third Season. The female writers, insisted over the objections of the male writers, that female character Betty Draper have a one-night stand. The storylines include: a secretly gay art director concealing his crush on one of his colleagues, a deserter from the Army posing with a stolen identity who is the womanizing star of the show (Don Draper), his wife "trapped" by a third pregnancy, an up and coming executive who sleeps with a secretary, impregnating her, an office manager who's fiance encourages her to underachieve and rapes her on the office floor [more on this later], and an older executive planning to divorce his wife and marry a 20 year old secretary.

With all the soap opera shenangans, it's a wonder anything gets done at the fictional ad agency. As one commenter on Whiskey's Place noted, much of female-oriented fiction consists of people screwing up their lives (often through sex) and wallowing in misery. It wasn't always so, of course. Jane Austen, for one, often brought her characters to the brink, but not over the edge, of screwing up their lives but allowed feminine good sense to reign over stupidity and lust in romance and love. "Mad Men" sadly follows the "screwing up their lives" cheap trick of much of female fiction. [Women are shoddily served, for the most part, in fiction that is created for them. Much of it worse in construction and execution than the worst slasher or most cliched action movie.]

Readers will note, of course, the themes. Women are "trapped" by marriage, victimized survivors, and longing to escape the cruelty of all the men in their lives, cruelty which also attracts them.

Fans of TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will recognize former Executive Producer Marti Noxon. Who famously conceived the story line that Buffy's "bad boyfriend" Spike the vampire would rape her, and Buffy would love him even more. A story line that series star Sarah Michelle Gellar found obnoxious and tried to kill but failed.

Noxon was noted for her 0ff-Broadway plays about who were raped by their "bad boyfriends" and then committed suicide. Laugh riots. Her plays brought her to the attention of Buffy creator Joss Whedon, who made her a staff writer and then Executive Producer on the show.

This is a pattern repeated by series creator Matthew Weiner, who hired Kater Gordon, 27, after she had baby-sat his sons and worked for series Executive Producer Scott Hornbacher.

What makes "Mad Men" watchable for it's fans is not the writing, which would not pass muster on the cheesiest soap opera, but the amazing art direction and period detail. Even though the writers clearly intend for the audience to despise the lead character Don Draper, and sympathize with the oppressed women who are in some cases graphically sexually assaulted, the limited audience ("Mad Men" remains a very niche show with a very small audience) seems to like the lead character.

Interesting too is the hyper-liberalism of Hollywood, unable to connect to a larger audience. The themes of "Mad Men" which amount to "women good, men bad" are by definition, unable to attract a wide male audience. Even with the deliberate emphasis on a overwhelmingly female writing staff (itself an oddity, women made up between 35-23% of writing staffs in the 2006-2007, and 2007-2008 seasons) the show fights to gain what little audience it has, with all the other shows giving the same soap opera treatment.

A Hollywood that works by PC quota systems, is unlikely, however good the Art Direction craft is, to be able to reach a broad audience. If advertisers do indeed wonder, "why am I paying for this when I could reach more people by doing it myself?" and start to offer free downloads and streaming video of what amounts to 45 minute serials, it is quite likely that writers will not be coming from Hollywood.

Which would be a good thing. Hollywood is itself so incestuous, particularly in writing, that their writers live in a PC, Multicultural bubble. In Hollywood's Golden Age, famous novelists like Dashiell Hammett and F Scott Fitzgerald would pick up easy money for lending their names and talents to scripts, but complain about the hackery of studio writers interested in appealing to the lowest common demoninator. Now, the problem is the reverse. Most of the writers would rather be acclaimed for hipness and "edgy" material, than write something most audiences would enjoy. As advertisers move in a long recession, with money tight all around, towards a broad audience rather than a wealthy niche one, the inability of Hollywood to write anything other than "my bad boyfriend raped me" will bite them squarely in the ass.

After all, even celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay is finding that his own restaurant empire faces recessionary pressures.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

The way these kind of women think and act would be fascinating if it weren't so simple and pathetic. The fact that what women want and what they pretend to want are such polar opposites makes it hard not to believe that they are not the root cause of dysfunctional modern liberalism. What Roissy has said about feminism being the biggest collective shit-test in human history is undeniable at this point. I can't help but wonder if some unconscious recognition of this fact is behind the acceptance of Islam by so many Western men.

On an unrelated note, isn't it sort of ironic that the "culture of critique" has given rise to the worst-ever generation of "critics"? Appointed by politically "correct" Culture Commissars, these unfailingly PC apparatchniks can't be bothered to look past their own masochistic proclivities to offer any insight into the real merits of a film.

Movie reviews these days read more like Ethnic/Gender studies papers than legitimate film critique. Analyses of writing, composition, music, lighting, costume, and effects have taken a backseat to analyzing "the message".

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

I can go for product placement instead of ads if they're done either at least half as good as the old radio shows Lileks is always talking about, or as well as this.

ganttsquarry said...

I have never watched an episode of Mad Men. I have, however, seen advertisements for the show for the last three years. Just going by the commercials for MM, with each passing year it seems more soap operaish, filled with more drama and horrors visited on the female cast members. In other words, if season one was designed to attract women but to also bring male viewers into the fold, it seems like the pretense of the latter is gone.
Is my impression correct Whiskey? Was there more male influence in directing the 1st season?

Anonymous said...

As someone who drove, and loved, an F-body, I find your endorsement of the "new" Camaro repulsive. No one with a genuine, unadulterated pair of huevos would support the Ripley-esque murder and replacement of the American Muscle Car. The new "Mustang", with an uncanny resemblance to the Eclipse, was the bellwether of cultural capitulation. At this point, the Corvette and the Viper are all that we have left.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about Mad Med. Sure all the elements that you mention are there to appeal to the female audience. But beyond some feminist themes, the show has a lot going for it. Don Draper is a great example of an Alpha male. Men can learn a lot by studying how he owns just about every scene he’s in, his body language etc.

Not only that but I like how very Un PC the show can be. I think the writers probably intended for us to hate the characters when they’re being sexist and whatnot but all I can think is how great it would be to be able speak so freely now. I think this show depicts the last generation when it was good to be a man so it gives me a good escape from the drudgery of modern PC life.

Rose said...

"As one commenter on Whiskey's Place noted, much of female-oriented fiction consists of people screwing up their lives (often through sex) and wallowing in misery."

I agree. We suck.

In fact, I come to ask a favor. You discussed the Rockford Files and I'm definitely going to check it out, but what are some other quality goal-oriented, old-time, masculine shows that you'd recommend, whiskey?

Whiskey said...

Rose -- Women decidedly do not suck. Rather, the fiction offered women has less quality than say, your average Michael Bay movie. Which is to say, not much.

The recent "Life" on NBC, available for free in some episodes at Hulu.com, and also on DVD, is well worth your while. A "zen/revenge" retelling of the Count of Monte Christo, it stars Damien Lewis (Band of Brothers) and the excellent Sarah Shahi as a zen-compassionate and shockingly tough cop and his recovering substance abusing female partner.

There's free on Hulu, "LA Dragnet" with Ed O'Neil, playing the character he mostly played BEFORE Married with Children, as Joe Friday. Since O'Neil takes the substance not the outward mannerisms of Jack Webb, it works. There's of course, "Maverick" with James Garner, and "Have Gun Will Travel" with Richard Boone, they might be on Hulu for free, definitely on DVD. "Danger Man" which predated the "Prisoner" with the late Patrick McGoohan is available on DVD, it might be on Hulu (I haven't checked).

It's odd, women's movies at least used to offer up a parallel to that male-goal oriented. Both male and female goals were something to be reached only after obstacles, and character and determination mattered. For female entertainment, it was usually centered around love, family, and so on, but that did not make it of any less interest or quality. Today it seems that "shock the bourgeoisie" in female-entertainment substitutes for quality writing, the way splatter substitutes for horror in male-oriented horror movies.

Gantts -- Yes the first season was more straightforward and less soap opera-ish.

Rob said...

I watched a couple of episodes of season one. The first thing I pick up on in ANY show or movie is the presence or absence of PC and Liberalism. It was refreshingly absent of these, so I liked what I saw. For some reason I never got back to watching, though.

Anonymous said...

I don't fault the female writers for being "girly" by nature; certainly women can and do write things for men that appeal to masculinity (Ayn Rand, Emily Dickinson are classic female writers who appeal to male sensibilities).

That aside, the show is definitely about celebrating females/minorities "overcoming" straight male power (built, of course, on lies, personified in "Dom Draper"); no doubt future episodes will push the gay agenda as well, and have racism "keep a brother down."

Still, the female writers do seem to recognize that straight white male power is intoxicating; raping women and having them fall in love, the amorous inclinations of Draper and his crew, etc. are the fascination with dying masculinity that modern women can't get enough of, although their "feminist" elders (re: lying feminazis) have indoctrinated them to never want to desire it for real, but only in fantasy.

Rose said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm going to try them out. I actually used to watch Maverick on TVLand, but didn't like that I never knew which brother I'd be getting.

"Rose -- Women decidedly do not suck. Rather, the fiction offered women has less quality than say, your average Michael Bay movie. Which is to say, not much."

Yes, but it is women who create and consume it. My gender made Sex in the City a hit. ("So, it's about three hookers and their mother?") Nearly every woman in my family used to watch it. And they're making a SEQUEL to the movie. We suck.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Rose-
if it makes you feel any better, just think of it like this:
these horrible Harlequin romance (no offense to the occasional decently written examples of that line) type shows are basically aimed-at-women versions of the aimed-at-men girly mags.

Just more socially acceptable ATM to have "Sex in the City" instead of "Three Chicks in Bikinis Wrestling in Mud."

Me, I'd prefer pop culture having a bit higher quality no matter who it's aimed at, but having it lean so solidly in one direction is just as bad as the other.

TH said...

I once watched one episode of this show. It was boring as hell. I'm not surprised to learn that the writers are mostly female.

I can't help but wonder if some unconscious recognition of this fact is behind the acceptance of Islam by so many Western men.

Where are these men? I've never met one. In Europe at least, most converts to Islam are women, and there aren't lots of them either.

Anonymous said...

HBO's Rome is (mostly) good for escaping PCness.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big "Buffy" fan, but from what I can recall of how they set up the Buffy-Spike scene, it didn't look like rape.

The story had two super-strong, super-tough persons, one male and one female. They got sexually involved and started rolling around without caring about their surroundings. In the course of having sex, they accidentally destroyed a building as easily as normal people would accidentally crush an empty Kleenex box. In this sense the sex was "violent," but it wasn't clear that there was any harm done to either participant. Also it wasn't clear to me that it was actually nonconsensual.

In conclusion, I don't think it's fair to say that Spike was unambiguously depicted as raping Buffy.

TGGP said...

The themes of "Mad Men" which amount to "women good, men bad" are by definition, unable to attract a wide male audience.
Roy Baumeister calls this the "women are wonderful" effect. Since even men believe it, your conclusion doesn't necessarily follow.

I've never seen any episodes, but I did just read Chauvinism for Sissies at TakiMag. As I've said before, I'm not much into tv but I can sort of grok being fascinated by retrograde attitudes. I was completely absorbed by the finale of Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel for example. Speaking of Junger, fans might want to check out the Ernst Junger - Anarch blog.

virgil xenophon said...

Whiskey/

FWIW, I believe "Danger Man" was the English title for the series. I am old enough (65) to have viewed the series in the original in the US while in college. It was entitled: "Secret Agent" with theme song "Secret Agent Man" by Baton Rouge's own Johnny Rivers (who, btw, used to play at sock hops at the HS--Lee High--that a girl I used to date in college attended.)

demosophist said...

I had never even heard of this show until you brought it up. Have seen a few ads since.

Whiskey said...

Anon -- Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon both say that the Spike Character raped Buffy. They found it "edgy" and "hip."

Which kind of gets back to the "Tom Brady Sexual Harassment" skit on SNL. Anything the big guy, Alpha Male does, is hot. For Joe Average, it's sexual harassment.

What's interesting is how the female fans all loved the Spike character MORE after the incident. Alpha is Alpha.

BlackOrchid said...

Am so glad to find your fascinating blog and just wanted to agree wholeheartedly with the fact that Marti Noxon is a talentless hack who wouldn't be a good enough writer for "Passions."

oh wait she DID write for that soap!

Anyway, she trashed Buffy, I'll never forget, and she's new to Mad Men this season, and has proceeded to ruin it. I don't think she was involved in Seasons 1 (excellent) or 2 (meh).

Everywhere is praise for Mad Men, so I am glad to be able to just express how awful Season 3 (and much of Season 2) has been!

Women don't suck. Marti Noxon sucks. lol

that's all, carry on!

Nicole said...

I caught Mad Men in the middle of season 1 and fell in love with the "soap-iness" of the show and also the time setting of the show. I went as far as to have all new episodes programmed to record on my DISH Network DVR. I'm able to watch Mad Men when ever I want on my Smartphone because I have it linked with my Sling Adapter. I work for DISH so I have all the newest innovative gadgets to enjoy Mad Men. As for the gender of the writers, it doesn't matter as long as I like what I see.