Monday, May 26, 2008

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Don't get nervous, I'm talking about television...

This was the first decent weekend in Newmarket, Canada's "Venice of the North" about a half hour from the center of the universe.

It was also "Yard Sale Saturday" in my neighborhood, meaning all the residents I hadn't seen for snow drifts all winter were making their first appearance while simultaneously trying to empty their basement into somebody else's garage.

In addition to catching up with the locals I traditionally use this weekend to conduct my own straw poll on who's watching what TV shows.

Coincidentally, the May 24 weekend here, Memorial day in the USA, is the official end of May Sweeps and the previous TV season and also the date when our television networks take credit for past triumphs and roll out the PR for next season's offerings.

So you know the marketing machine has already been spewing all the "winners and losers", "best ofs" and "soon to be a hits". Stats I know all my frozen at home neighbors have been following with eager interest.


Only -- they haven't.

Okay, so my straw poll only had a sample group of 25 families on a couple of adjoining streets, some of whom don't speak much English, so it doesn't represent the full demographic spectrum of the nation.

But they range in occupation from construction workers to teachers and chemical engineers and stay-at-home moms. Some drive pick-ups and a few roll in a BMW or a Lexus. The youngest respondants were in their teens and the oldest was 82.

Who says Neilsen is not my middle name?

But I have a feeling their answers to my TV questions might be reflective of the bigger picture. And that possibility has me a little worried.

Of the 60 - 80 people I spoke with on Saturday, not one, not a single solitary one had a "favorite" show. Nobody had an "Appointment Television" appointment with anything.

Nobody had heard of "Gossip Girl" or that "90210" was coming back. Nor did I see anyone make a note of those titles so they could Google them later.

The lady next door, who I know had a crush on Dr. McDreamy last year, didn't watch much of "Grey's Anatomy" this season. She started to feel she'd seen it all before, skipped a few weeks while she took a cooking class and then found herself flipping channels when McDreamy wasn't in the scene.

The kid who was addicted to "Lost" and "Heroes" felt they started "f**king with" him and spent his evenings on the net instead. He couldn't stop talking about the cool stuff he's doing on "Second Life".

Sure there were people who watched "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars" but mostly because "There wasn't anything else on" and even they weren't regulars. One had discovered Patrick O'Brian and was working his way through those volumes. Another had invested money with two African women on Kiva and spent her evenings following their progress.

The Cambodian couple watches DVDs her mother ships over. The Russian brothers have a dish that picks up Hockey and Football from Kazakhstan. The Iranian family buys pirate disks at the Pacific Mall while the High School Download Demon offered me a copy of "Crystal Skull" commenting that it wasn't that good. He meant the movie not the quality of the P2P screener.

Of course some of "the guys" were watching hockey. A few of the women try to catch "Oprah" between soccer mom duties. And the geek who works for the Ontario government is "addicted to Question Period".

But as far as the mainstream goes, I could count the number of times somebody mentioned "House" or "30 Rock" or "CSI" on one hand -- for all three combined.

Now, I understand that because people know I'm in the business, they might have felt they should answer with something that "defined" their personality. But I honestly got the feeling that those Plasma screens in their living rooms and dens were being turned on less often -- and most likely to watch something picked up at Blockbuster.

What became really troubling was when I asked about Canadian shows. One guy had seen "Corner Gas" a couple of times and a pair of teenagers had the first seasons of "Trailer Park Boys" on DVD. That was it.

Honest.

If you'll recall, last weekend saw CBC's Hockey version of "Test the Nation" duking it out with the CTV movie "Elijah" for local viewers. Not one person was aware of either of them. This was interesting since the ads for the former run almost non-stop on CBC and ads for the latter -- okay, I didn't see any on CTV either...

More importantly, none of my poll participants had any interest in watching them once I told them what they were.

Now for the kicker --

I mentioned the recent CRTC hearings and the possibility that they may soon be paying $5 or $6 more for their Canadian channels. Most were unaware of that. But the answer was unanimous. "No, I won't!"

Some insisted they'd cancel their cable subscriptions and others suspected they'd just drop that second receiver in the bedroom or cut a program bundle or two.

But they're not going to pay more and more for programming they are already watching less and less.

When the talk turned from television to what was really on their minds it was what you would expect, rising gas prices, higher food costs and the prediction they'd be paying a lot more to heat their homes come next winter.

No matter their incomes, these people are feeling squeezed. The marketing concept that they can always be milked for a few more drops appears to be losing its presience.

For those of us involved in creating the coming season and dissecting the entrails of the network offerings, it would seem we need to begin discussing something far more important.

Why doesn't our audience care anymore -- and how do we get them back?

6 comments:

Diane Kristine said...

My anecdotal evidence suggests the same. The only watercooler shows at my recent jobs have been the big reality shows, because those are the only ones that more than one or two people in the office watch.

Some of that is fragmentation of the market. I think the stats suggest people are watching the same amount of TV, but more shows are sharing the eyeballs.

Some is that TV isn't as important to most people as it is to those who discuss it on the Internet. 2 million Canadians watch House? 32 million don't.

Canadian shows? I rarely run into anyone who's seen a current series. Most have barely heard of them if you list them ... which I tend to be asked to do when people find out I run a website about them.

I don't recognize the audience I read about on industry-focused blogs, when what "the audience" thinks or feels is used as ammunition for whatever argument is being presented. I think it's time to stop focusing on what the Internet keeners write about (yes, me included) and find out what actual human beings are thinking and feeling, whether they're watching your shows or not watching - then why aren't they? And keep the psychobabble agenda out of it. Sometimes if we don't like a show, it's because we don't like a show, not that we're self-loathing Canadians. Just listen. Smile and nod. Take notes. And do whatever it is you writer people do with notes.

Stephanie.... said...

I was reading "A Tale of a Boy and his TV Show, which led me to your bang on post!

We have had a DVR in our house for about 3 years and honestly, I couldn't live without it now. Kids not in bed yet when Criminal Minds is on? Record it, watch later, fast forward through commercials.

I also admit I have never watched an episode of House, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives or Corner Gas. I'm sure there's other "popular" shows that I'm forgetting, and that's just the point. In our house, there's no such time as Premiere Month anymore, or Sweeps Week, our TV schedule is broken down into Hockey/Basketball Season, and Baseball Season.

I'm not even going to attempt Dollhouse next year, which is saying alot as Whedon's Firefly will remain my favourite show of all time. Cancel happy FOX will never burn me again! If I want, I'll just rent the DVD's if it lasts.

I've made the break:
http://firefly-alternativegirlfriend.blogspot.com/2008/05/so-long-farewell-auf-weidersehen-good.html

Cunningham said...

I'm trying to find where the audience is going too, Jim and I think they are heading for the web, their game consoles and DVD /download.

People around my house are all on their own schedules so there is never any appointment television - ever. I think this is going to change though as gas prices climb - folks will stay indoors/at home more and find ways to entertain themselves on the cheap.

I'm interested in seeing this new show FEAR ITSELF because it can be digested very easily - watch one show by a fave director and you really don't have to watch the rest if you don't want. You can jump in or out at any time during the season. It's also great for downloading - one hour movies! Gee, it's like we are back in the forties and B-movies (some of which were only an hour).

Elize Morgan said...

Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I know quite a few who have "appointment shows".

Problem comes in that they're starting to watch those online. Things get bumped because of a concert, and then it's "well... I can just download this as easily."

Which begs a question -- especially when looking at some of the newer CBC shows. "JPod" picked up a pretty devout cult audience (and, whether that show would have weathered another season doesn't need to be debated), but the numbers didn't show it. A lot of people watched the episode online -- where the demo doesn't really count -- or shared with Americans/Brits who were interested in the same manner.

It's also more convenient to pick up a series via DVD -- but there's no way to really figure that into the numbers either. It's frightening, but the question is more where *cable* is going to go now.

Darren M said...

Right now I spend most of my evening reading blogs from the Stargate universe and Canadian tv writers (seriously). It began with Joseph Mallozzi and from there spread across to Boot In The pants, The Legion of Decency and Dead Things on Sticks.

As for tv I have just finished my 2nd run through of Stargate SG1, this time including all the commentaries and special features. Next on the list will be box sets for Atlantis or Battlestar Galactica.

I tried watching Journeyman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles on free-to-air/broadcast tv in Australia but they just kept putting them on later or moved them to the HD channels which I'm not setup for yet. I bought Sanctuary online because of who put it together and the way it was done. It was a bit expensive for what it was but being able to access it at the same time as the rest of the world was a big bonus.

Dollhouse does look really interesting but my viewing habits out here won't have any effect on ratings or if its picked up so I'll add it to the list when its out on dvd.

Anonymous said...

I keep getting burned watching TV shows that can't sustain good storytelling in the face of syndication milk-it-out-for-profit requirements. Today's shows have to have a low buy-in and a short run because formulas can't wing it anymore. I gave up cable four years ago and I don't miss it. A DVD is on my own schedule, and I can order entire series through Netflix, so I don't have to wait.

What it comes down to is people want on-demand television that delivers "fun now". "Fun maybe" isn't going to cut it anymore. It really is "57 channels and nuthins' on." Cable is now, officially, obsolete. I don't need it. My parents don't need it. My friends are starting to not need it.

It's over. The era of big congloms running everything is costing too much. The edge is going to go to small time companies that can go nimble. The profits will follow that, because its where people will be going.