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On demographics, devices and ‘Downton Abbey’

“Keynesian paradigm shift” was a term Zeitgeist was introduced to back in those glorious days of university. We’re often on the lookout for that next shift. 2003 was the first time when Zeitgeist began to take blogs seriously, as your average Iraqi citizen started writing journals online that gave more of an insight into the invasion than any “embedded” Fox News reporter. Incidentally, anyone looking to know more about the way news was covered by those reporters under the care of the US military at the time should check out the fascinating documentary “Control Room”.

There’s has been much discussion of more paradigm shifts over the last couple of years as PVR / DVR devices like TiVo and Sky+ have set various network TV honchos and advertising execs fretting about the lessened impact of advertising caused by delayed viewing. Advertisements on television are scheduled at a particular time to appeal to a very particular audience, and may be very ephemeral in nature (eg for an upcoming event or film). Having viewers watch the commercial at a later time might be bad, as it could be – in the advertiser’s eyes – too late. But having the viewer fast-forward through the commercial break altogether is disastrous. Simply put, companies won’t pay to have an ad on TV if no one is going to watch it. This of course is especially relevant to shows with covetable demographics, i.e. Watched by the financially comfortable, as ironically they are more likely to have purchased a device that makes those advertisements fast-forwardable.

However, recent news should cheer those whose job it is to worry about such matters. In the first place, as the world economy stutters into recovery, advertisers are funnelling money back into mainstream media, particularly television, as we reported on last October. Moreover, as Variety recently reported, the feeling of watching a show as it is broadcast “live” is a special one. This has long held true for sporting events and the Oscars, but increasingly it applies to popular sitcoms and dramas, too. Shows like ITV’s recent Downton Abbey revealed that people made a point of watching the broadcast live so that they could engage more in the online conversations that were taking place on social networks like Facebook. UK TV ratings are now at their highest since records began.

This brings up two points, one of cultural philosophy, the other of political science policy. In the mid-1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote a seminal piece of work known as “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”. The crux of this paper rested on the idea that there is something infinitely intangible and special about seeing the genuine artefact; beholding the original Mona Lisa in the Denon wing of the Louvre is a more special experience than looking at it on a postcard. There is an “aura” to it. If we extrapolate this to the world of film and television, that aura is fed now by social media chatter amongst friends.
From a policy point of view, an argument that Zeitgeist has mentioned before bears noting, that of technological determinism vs social constructivism. It posits the argument over whether what a technology is intended for necessarily dictates how it is used, and influences user behaviour. With a heightened demand for the live experience, evidently this is not the case with PVRs. Recent studies show that people are fast-forwarding through commercials less and less, and, as mentioned, gravitating toward enjoying the live experience more and more. A savvy person might ask how we can mesh these two worlds together. Zeitgeist wouldn’t be surprised to see in the near future programme recommendations appearing on your PVR from friends you are connected to over social networks.

Downton Abbey is worth noting again. In the past, when we have thought of wildly successful shows and films, thoughts of the latest teen sensation might have come to mind. And while Twilight and Justin Bieber do occupy a significant part of the current Zeitgeist, shows like Downton Abbey illustrate that there is another audience – a rapidly growing one – that is only just beginning to appear on the radar of media executives. As The Economist recently pointed out, the baby boomer generation has a relatively high spending power, and buys a relatively high quantity of media like CDs. And while, according to Variety, movie studios plan to release some 27 prequels or sequels this year, there are also signs for hope too. The King’s Speech came very close to not getting made after debacles with funding, and Black Swan had a similarly bumpy road to production; Variety says it “kept losing its funding until the day before principal photography”. These were two of the greatest (and most mature) films of last year according to Zeitgeist, with the former winning both Best Picture and Best Director. Black Swan has grossed more than $100m in the US. The only other film from Fox studios to do the same was the latest Narnia incarnation, which must have cost north of $200m to make, once marketing is included. Films about royalty and ballet are ones that will appeal to the superannuated audience, and not coincidentally perhaps the ones with the highest profit margins. The much-coveted 18-49 demographic is an anachronism, let’s think bigger (and older).

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