Geoffrey Long
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The death of the niche market?

I don't have time to respond to the piece in-depth at the moment, but a very intriguing piece has appeared on the blogosphere that argues the "Death of the Niche Market" is upon us. Besides a couple of small annoyances with the author in general (an infestation of "it's / its" mistakes and his billing himself as only 'Whiskey, A Politically Incorrect Blogger looking at Politics and Culture" from "Somewhere, California") I obviously disagree with his verdict but have to give him props for some very insightful observations.

The piece is extremely long, so I've cherry-picked the key points below. Basically, Whiskey is arguing that a niche market for entertainment (like ours) is doomed in a recessionary economy (again, like ours) because:

  • The niche market exists partly because "consumers, with rising wages, and lowered costs for food and energy (in real, inflation adjusted terms) were willing to pay extra to possess goods that differentiated them from everyone else."
  • "Advertisers would pay money to reach selected demographics, mostly young people, and consumers were eager and able to pay money to listen to niche music, watch niche television, and buy niche products."
  • "...Niche plays for audience or shoppers don't work in economic downturns."
  • "Retailers and manufacturers are weeding out niche products that don't have mass appeal. Some retailers are already dropping suppliers and products that don't generate big sales."
  • "Broadcast radio, free and over the airwaves, may well attract more advertisers looking to reach the masses [than satellite radio], since the niche market simply won't exist in many cases."
  • "Musically, popular bands are going to get older. Audience wise at least. There simply won't be enough disposable income to be spread over untried, unknown bands."
  • "Film makers like Judd Apatow are likely to be successful, with more culturally conservative messages (carefully hidden behind profanity), while edgy/hip film makers like Steve Soderburgh will find that audiences are not in a mood to be shocked with edgy material, but will demand entertainment satisfaction. With discretionary income limited, a few movies will be mega-hits, the rest will have to eke out small box office receipts and DVD rentals."
  • "In television, the CW is doomed unless it can broaden it's [sic] appeal beyond teen age girls. ...NBC's "Heroes" is likely to show continued declines, with a convoluted storyline, and lack of central and compelling characters who provide an enjoyable escape from ordinary life. Even worse is Fox's mid-season "Dollhouse," a new offering by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Joss Whedon. It would have been a tough sell in 1997, and this is not 1997. Niche, trendy-hip posturing just won't sell in a recession. Not with profound consumer shifts in spending and corresponding changes in advertiser spending.
  • "Likely to improve in ratings are sports, including the NFL, College Sports, and Baseball, as people seek cheap and relaxing entertainment. ...Men are likely to spend more time watching TV, and shows that can capture the male audience are likely to do well. NBC's "Chuck" is likely to do quite well in this regard, as are any other show featuring an idealized "average guy" as the hero."
  • "It's quite likely that most other networks will avoid these niche shows as their fall lineup inevitably fails and pursue the "CBS formula" as epitomized by "NCIS" and the various "CSI," "NUMB3RS," and so on. A strong, forty year old plus male character leads a team that includes a strong, capable female character or characters. Fighting crime, restoring order, or something of that nature. The goal being to attract men plus women with elements that appeal to both and don't repel either."

His final, summary paragraph sums up his take on all this quite nicely:

That is, quite likely, a good thing. Lack of unified and unifying culture makes bonds across divisions, racial, sexual, class, regional, and income much more difficult. A common culture, valued and defended, protects against both usurpation of power at home by unchecked elites, be they political, cultural, judicial, or corporate, as well as a stout defense of the nation and it's people abroad. When everyone has seen the game last night, or understands the catch phrases of the latest sitcom, or watches the same hour long drama on television, social bonds increase, as do the ability for ordinary people to band together to demand or force action on issues where they hold common ground.

I've heard similar arguments here at MIT before from Professor David Thorburn, who laments the loss of common cultural reference points like I Love Lucy and Friends. I'm still not sure I buy this argument, and I'd actually argue the inverse – the days when such popular entertainment was widespread led to even starker cultural divides within the mainstream. While the Democrats and Republicans might be extremely upset with each other right now, I think our current everything-goes culture of niche entertainment fosters a greater degree of acceptance across the board, and thus defuses things like racial riots, social boundaries, and the kind of "hippies versus conservatives" culture that ran rampant in the 1960s and 1970s. When everyone is accepted into some niche or another, you don't get dominant culture versus counterculture – and you don't get Nazis versus Jews. If that's true, then keeping the niche market alive and well is a very important thing.

Of course, in the words of Dennis Miller, "that's just my opinion – I could be wrong."

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