Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why Dollhouse is a Flop and What It Means for Popular Culture

For those who care, and judging by the ratings, most don't, the latest TV series from Joss Whedon, "Dollhouse," is a flop. Judging by reviews, the series and lead actress (Eliza Dushku), have performed "below expectations" and even Television Without Pity, a forum of certified boosters of all things Whedon, have weighed in on a Dollhouse Cancellation Pool. Buzz has been negative, with delays in filming so scripts could be re-written, and the cast and producers/writers packed with various Whedon cronies and relatives.

"Dollhouse" is of course unimportant in and of itself. But it's probable failure, contains clues as to what will not work and what will in Television, and thus clues to important trends in popular culture: the end of "demassification" and subcultures, and the rise of a new mass unified culture. With of course, profound implications for politics and society.

Dollhouse is not very well executed. But it's likely execution does not matter that much. Had Dollhouse premiered in say, 1997, it might well have succeeded. But the recession, and changing ad market, are transforming the nature of television and pop culture in general. Contrary to the Long Tail hypothesis of continued "demassification" of culture, a lengthy recession is likely to significantly reduce fragmentation of culture, and produce a more unified culture. For simple business reasons: appealing to a broad group of society is the only way to make money given scarce advertiser dollars. Yes, we are entering an era of scarcity after nearly sixty years of nearly un-interrupted prosperity.

The failure of Dollhouse is thus a signal, of how the culture of America is being transformed from a fragmented mess of various sub-groups, into a more uniform (and populist) mass culture, not seen perhaps since the 1980's. This has significant impacts on how culture will drive politics and policy.

First, let's look at how pop culture worked under the old, "prosperity" model. A commenter on Television Without Pity summed up the old model, which traded mass viewers for a more "desireable" segment. This strategy of "demassifying" or cult culture, was pioneered by former NBC head Grant Tinker in the early 1980's, with renewals of low-rated but desirable demographics ( rich Yuppies) shows such as "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere." This strategy sustained the low-rated "Seinfeld" during it's first few years (1989-91) as it drew low ratings initially but favorable demographics. Wealthy Yuppies that advertisers would pay premiums to reach created cult shows like "Hill Street Blues," and that model was later extended to young, female consumers with shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek." A lot of money was made selling Pantene Shampoo and Conditioner to young women.

This was (and is) Amazon's model, selling lots of things that don't have mass appeal, but can be sold at a mark-up premium, to lots of people. Apple's Itunes store is another good example. Since their operating costs are low, and in the case of Apple inventory cost is near zero, they can afford to carry lots of songs or DVDs or books (in the case of Amazon, sitting in the inventory of partners) and sell them in small amounts (no major hits) to lots and lots of customers. Advertising had worked the same way, making lots of cult shows such as "Farscape" or "Battle Star Galactica" (the remake by Ron Moore) at least possible and sometimes even profitable, given the premium rates charged advertisers for desirable demographics, i.e. young and wealthy consumers.

As TV accelerated the process of dumping male viewers in favor of what advertisers wanted, which was female viewers (viewed as key purchase decision makers), this hyper-fragmentation continued. One network, the WB, was devoted almost entirely to young female viewers, and it's successor network CW has continued that focus. However, this strategy of cutting up the mass audience into small pieces and producing entertainment that appealed only to the small pieces required a constantly rising economy, rising consumer spending, and thus rising advertising rates as sponsors clamored to get their message across to ever smaller groups of tightly focused demographic segments. There was also the problem of the "missing men," who as they remained single longer and longer, remained out of reach of advertisers and relatively unimportant in consumer messaging.

This particular strategy of sub-group focus was failing even before the economy crashed. Last year it was rumored the CW network would shut down because of revenue shortfall caused by very low ratings and not enough advertising spending even with the desired 12-17 and 18-34 female demographic. The problem? Sponsors were seeing that demographic cut back spending on products such as specialty shampoos and conditioners, clothes, ringtones, and other luxury consumer goods that defined discretionary spending. Moreover, there just was not enough young women around, given the decline in birth rates.

Now ad spending is down even more dramatically. Of course Auto companies have been hit by the recession, even Toyota and Honda are shedding thousands of jobs and cutting back on TV and other advertising, let alone GM, Ford, and Chrysler. So too, banks, insurance companies, and other segments of advertisers, hurt hard by the economic crash, and in many cases taking bailout money that politically makes advertising almost impossible. Nor has there been any recent recovery in the spot market, indeed rates for spot advertising (instead of pre-arranged ad purchases) are lower than the contracted rates. Analysts don't see relief any time soon. Even Local TV stations are hurting. CBS, the most profitable of the networks, managed to eke out a small profit, but they are down more than 50% from last year.

The few advertisers willing to spend money, are packaged consumer goods companies like Proctor & Gamble, or Nabisco, and they won't pay extra to reach small segments of consumers, rather current advertisers want broader reach and all possible consumers, young and old, male and female alike. Since their message is value and affordability in a time of lasting recession and they cannot afford to ignore key segments such as men, as in the past. Advertisers such as Pantene have greatly reduced their advertising since their target customers, young women, have cut back on spending like everyone else.

A look at the ratings for 2009 is instructive. Fox's Ratings, NBC's ratings, ABC's ratings, CBS's ratings, and CW's ratings are all found at the links. Taking non-repeat showings, and averaging the numbers, produces the table shown below:

NetworkShowAverage Non-Repeat Viewers (Millions)
FoxAmerican Idol25.49
FoxLie to Me12.1
CBSThe Mentalist18.85
CBSCSI: Miami15.05
CBSWithout a Trace12.82
CBSGhost Whisperer10.78
CBSEleventh Hour12.02
NBCLaw and Order8.39
NBCKnight Rider5.28
ABCGrey's Anatomy14.5
ABCPrivate Practice11.02
ABCUgly Betty7.42
ABCLife on Mars5.48
ABCDesperate Housewives13.95
CWGossip Girl2.43
CWOne Tree Hill2.7

You can see in the data a few broad patterns. First, I've excluded sitcoms to focus on hour-dramas only. With a few high-rated reality shows to compare the dramas against. Even facing audience erosion after a number of years, a show like "American Idol" averages 25 million viewers. This is less astonishing, mind you, than at first glance.

In 1968, with a population of 200 million or so, "the Beverly Hillbillies" drew 60 million viewers. As compared to "American Idol" today with a full 33% more people, or 303 million. For "American Idol" to draw comparable numbers to the "Beverly Hillbillies" in terms of proportional amount of the population, viewers would have to reach 80 million or so. It's worth noting that the Superbowl the last two years has reached about 98 million viewers, so people will watch in those broad numbers if what is on offer is of enough interest. There is a great amount of money to be made in mass culture, "American Idol" alone is responsible for a great deal of Fox's revenues, given their only middling performance of other dramas.

But these issues aside, broad patterns emerge. Shows featuring a strong male lead, who in some way leads a team of disparate people, with strong female characters, generally will draw a lot of viewers. The shows feature a strong and conservative moral message, valuing teamwork, professionalism, loyalty, duty, family, decency and honor over career and status that mass audiences clearly like. Desire for closeness to family and loss (often of family) is a theme running through most of these shows. Moral lessons: don't cheat on your spouse, sleep around, neglect your family, put career first, act arrogantly, or care more about status than people, are often important plot points. CBS is chock-a-block full of those types of shows, their "Crimetime" police procedurals of one form or another, and their generally conservative throw-back nature (adult White Males are in charge in nearly all of them) appeal to both male and female audiences. Not lost on female audience is the fact that these types of shows almost always have strong female second leads who wield (responsibly) power and authority. These shows are the most popular after "American Idol," and include "the Mentalist" (18.9 million viewers), "CSI" (19.3), and "NCIS" (18.5). Even lesser rated or known shows such as "the Unit" (not shown) and "Flashpoint" ( a Canadian import) can pull in 9 million viewers or so. If CBS seems formulaic, they are. Because the formula works. Most of Fox's Dramas follow this pattern as well, from "House" to "24" to "Bones."

Female night-time soap operas, ranging from Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, to Ugly Betty, will garner 14 to 7 million viewers or thereabouts. Not as much as the "Crimetime" formula, and less consistently, but still respectable. Unlike the "Crimetime" formula, however, these shows are strictly for women only, with nothing in them to interest men who are not gay. Since these shows leave out men, advertisers are beginning to lose interest in paying a premium for them, given the need in a recession to make every penny of ad spending count.

Hour long shows that tend to straddle genres, such as comedy-dramas like "Chuck," or Superhero soap operas like "Heroes" or quirky mystery-conspiracy crime dramas like "Life" tend to underperform relative to straight up Female Soap Operas or "Crimetime" procedurals with a strong White Male lead in charge. The terminally PC "Knight Rider" is probably a good example of this, well matched in the ratings with the equally PC-lecturing "Life on Mars" from ABC. [It's interesting that the same show on NBC, "Medium" does about 2 million viewers less, than the same show on CBS "Ghost Whisperer" in the much less desirable Friday time slot, suggesting that "Chuck" if shown on CBS would pull in about 2 million more viewers, but still rate only about 9 million viewers or so, about half of the traditional male roles of the "Mentalist" and "NCIS".]

The two shows that skew male (and older) for the CW, "Smallville" and "Supernatural" significantly outperform the teen girl oriented "Gossip Girl" which if one judged only by the amount of hype and publicity, would be the top rated show instead of 2.4 million viewers. Others such as "Privileged" gather only 1.4 million viewers, which is infomercial time. There just are not that many teen girls, given the birth dearth. Too bad the people running the CW don't look at demographics.

Dollhouse of course runs closer to uber-PC (and thus low-rated) "Life on Mars" and "Knight Rider" than it does say, "Fringe," or "Lie to Me" with traditional male leads on the same network. A commenter on Television Without Pity summed up Dollhouse's approach as being feminist, with lots of cheesecake or half-naked shots of Eliza Dushku, and with nearly all the men being nasty, unlikeable pieces of work. Clearly the intent is to "square the circle," but within PC constraints, having action and "hot chicks" that appeal to men and a heavy dose of feminism, along with status-mongering and disagreeable to repulsive male characters filled with Yuppie status angst and self-loathing.This brings to mind what the REAL Lieutenant Starbuck, Dirk Benedict, had to say about the remake of Battle Star Galactica, and specifically the inability to portray non-Angsty, fun, male characters in Sci-Fi or genre TV. A profile of Benedict at National Review has much of the same sentiments.

Benedict's larger point, that TV and film refuse to allow male characters, who are not angst-ridden and self-loathing, to kick ass and take a strong moral stand, instead demanding that this be done by stick-figure women, who haven't eaten since the Clinton Administration, is well taken. Hollywood keeps pushing that "solution" to it's reluctance to allow traditional men a role in TV and movies, be it Ron Moore's "Battle Star Galactica" or the Terminator series on Fox (not listed in the table above) which is near cancellation, averaging only 3.8 million viewers, or thereabouts. Viewers are not interested in seeing women in these types of shows, particularly not the waify kinds seen on "Dollhouse" or various model types on "Battle Star Galactica." Indeed traditional female soap operas far out-draw these types of shows ("Terminator," "Dollhouse," etc.) along with the terminally PC male-oriented shows ("Life on Mars," "Knight Rider") that also refuse to take strong moral stands and provide viewers with relatively un-conflicted, upbeat and optimistic male heroes.

Clearly, Hollywood's attempt to "square the PC circle" with women kicking ass, and men angst-ridden and disagreeable, has passed. These shows found some success and advertiser dollars in the go-go status-obsessed 1990's, where the only problem was where to put all the money people were making, but far less in the recessionary and terrorist-threat (of the nuclear kind) decade of the 2000's, ten years later. Niche cultures just are not making money.

What sells, clearly, besides a remake of "Major Bowes Amateur Hour" or "the Ed Sullivan Show" ("American Idol") is the traditional White Male, leading a team, with a White female as the second lead. Sometimes the female lead is the gun-play expert to the "smart" male lead (CSI's Marg Helgenberger, Chuck's Yvonne Strahowski, the Mentalist's Robin Tunney, and Eleventh Hour's Marley Shelton), keeping expensive and difficult to portray fight scenes to a minimum and making violence on-screen short and to the point, also more realistic. Since tiny, waifish models do not throw hulking men around. But the shows are just as importantly, generally free from excessive PC lecturing, at least, and generally take a positive attitude (professionalism, duty, loyalty, family) that is the antithesis of the dark, angsty world-view of the 1990's shows such as "the X Files."

Broadly appealing shows are what advertisers are paying for, as well, and it's unlikely to change even if/when the economy recovers, because it's unlikely we will see consumer spending at the levels of the 1990's as uncertainty about employment and wages remain, perhaps for years to come. This means a lot more shows like the "Mentalist" and a lot fewer ones like "Dollhouse."

This is mostly a good thing. Popular culture, as Andrew Breitbart noted, shapes politics. A culture which believes and responds to the values of team work, professionalism, loyalty, optimism, problem solving, family, and moral conservatism is one that is vastly different from the status-driven angst fests of the current "Battle Star Galactica" or "Dollhouse." In many ways, the start of the Obama Presidency coincides with an upsurge of conservative feeling in popular culture. Not because millions of people read Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" but because people under stress respond to entertainment that is both fun and stresses positive social and cultural messages to provide a sense of self-control in rapidly changing, and unfriendly economic and political-social climates.

Angst-A-Rama, it seems, is out.
...Read more