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:
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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.