Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
Success in media.

The followup to my previous post is sort of thesis-related (excuse me, THESIS related) so I thought I'd scribble my thoughts down here. The main direction of my thinking here is simply, "What does it mean to succeed in media?"

We've heard a lot about Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory, which suggests, at heart, that a company can make a large amount of money by supplying niche audiences with content that is affordable to produce, distribute and consume. My personal followup to that observation is that a company can make a small amount of money by supplying one single niche audience with content – but if that content is affordable to produce, distribute and consume, then said "small amount of money" may prove, dollar for dollar, more 'profitable' than a large enterprise. If an enterprise costs $5M to produce and makes $6M, you have $1M profit – if it costs $100M to produce and makes $101M, you still have $1M profit, and if it costs $10K to produce and makes $1,010,000, you still have $1M profit. It is possible to make "enough" money by catering to smaller audiences when the overhead is low enough.

Lately I've been captivated by the idea of "enough" money. Laura is really good for me insofar as she knows the meaning of "enough". If she has enough food, money or anything to get by from day to day, she's happy. I myself worry if I have less than a solid amount of cash in the bank and enough food, clothing and media in my personal collection to last me through Doomsday. (Which is funny, because I often get anxious about having too much media to consume. My mind is broken.)

This notion of 'enough' comes into play now because of something that's bothering me about my particular demographic and my favorite creators. My favorite creators right now, in various media, are probably Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Smith, and Warren Ellis. I should also include Guillermo del Toro, Hayao Miyazaki and Shigeru Miyamoto. And J.K. Rowling. And Stephen King, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and Clive Barker. Maybe. And Jim Henson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Carroll...

Long story short, most of these people are artists in the fantastic. My hyper-specific demographic is dark fantasy, preferably trending towards the real – I dig 'portal stories', ones that start in the real world and go careening off into someplace else. Sometimes these work in mass media (The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland...) and sometimes they don't, but these types of stories are more often found in lower-budget systems like text and comics. Text and comics are good fields for guys like me (and, I'd argue, the creators on my list) -- they afford more control, more experimentation and more catering to a specific demographic. They also afford more direct 'authorship', or association of a story with its creator. Authorship in mass media is an interesting phenomenon – you have very distinct creators in films (directors) and texts (authors), but only a few TV shows have distinct 'authors' (like Whedon and JJ Abrams, for example). Comics have an increasingly solid authorial association in place as well, which is directly attributable to the creators' rights movements in the last couple of decades.

Let me wrench this train of thought back on-track. New techniques make it possible to produce content for smaller niche audiences affordably, but the hunger for impossibly huge profit margins renders this possibility 'untenable' according to the perceptions of mass media. This is why it's arguably easier to produce niche content in text or comics – the lower cost of production and distribution means it requires a smaller audience to 'succeed'.

So what does it mean to 'succeed'? What is 'successful' media?

This is a much harder question to answer than it seems at first blush. The New York TImes Bestsellers List is usually the source we turn to for validation of the success of a book – but this list doesn't offer sales numbers. I'm still tyring to chase down what it means to be a bestselling novel; what interests me is how those numbers compare to the DVD sales of Firefly or the ratings for Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Stargate. Quantitatively speaking, are there more Gaiman fans or Whedon fans? Are there more Gaiman fans or Lost fans? If everyone who bought a copy of American Gods went to go see Mirrormask, would the film still fail at the box office because the Hollywood people demand such a ridiculous turnout?

I think that despite the widely-perceived 'failure' of Firefly and Serenity, people shouldn't view Whedon as a failure as a storyteller. Whedon attracted a number of dedicated fans that may be considered small in such a massively overblown media form as television. If he'd had the same numbers in print he'd've been a phenomenon. I'm afraid that as Gaiman continues to make inroads into film, he may fall flat on his face because the demographic that likes his types of stories may only be large enough to be considered successful in smaller media.

These are successful storytellers with tons of talent and fans lining up to throw money at them to tell their stories. These are the people primed for 'Long Tail' niche markets that utilize new technology to make it affordable to create, distribute and consume their content. The failure of the system comes in when Hollywood studios addicted to ridiculous profit margins scorn $1M profit centers for $100M profit centers. This damages the storytellers, their audiences and the business as a whole.

I want to see a system in which Whedon makes enough money. There was a line in Studio 60 a couple of weeks ago in which Sorkin makes a thinly-veiled snide response to claims that The West Wing might have fared better on HBO. He claims, "All good things should run to the avenue," which means that he feels like his stuff, despite its catering to a niche audience, should be broadcast on mass-distribution TV because the best stuff should be made available to the masses. I'd argue that Sorkin himself is just addicted to mass-distribution attention, when he'd probably find a much more sustaining system in place on HBO or IPTV.

What burns my tailfeathers is how canceling something like Studio 60 is perceived – the show failed as a moneymaker, therefore it failed as a story – and if Sorkin can't make the money, he doesn't get to tell the story. What this also tells mass America is that if their tastes run more towards niche content, their favorite shows don't deserve to exist. Only the mass moneymaker, the lowest common denominator, gets to survive. Which is dumb. New technology allows for that niche content to survive and flourish with smaller audiences, insofar as they still prove somewhat profitable. Even if it's not a $100M profit, if it makes a $10M profit, then it should still continue to exist as long as it isn't taking up a spot that could be used to make $100M. That's the difference between IPTV and broadcast – no more "Studio 60 is costing us $90M because it's only pulling in $10M in a slot where American Idol could be making $100M".

I dunno. This is spiralling off in a weird direction and is losing focus, so I'm going to post it here and come back to it later. I want to say that the size of a niche audience is fixed, and storytellers knowing that they're catering to that audience can choose which media form in which to work based on that demographic. This is probably impossible, but it's an interesting position. I also think that IPTV and direct-to-video, despite the stigma of direct-to-DVD (although people should look to the OAV market in Japan for examples of how this could happen successfully) provide possible avenues of distribution that storytellers of this type should consider for future development.

Enh. Like I said, post now, come back later...

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