TV audiences are fragmenting like never before. Industry watchers say the days in which everyone got together to watch MASH, or All in the Family, or Seinfeld or Friends are all but over. Sure, some programs still draw massive weekly audiences – we’re looking at you, Game of Thrones – but most “successes” are bringing in numbers that would have justified only descriptions of “cult hit” status not that long ago.
Shows like Orange is the New Black on Netflix and Dexter have achieved success, but nothing along the lines of previous Prime Time hits. This isn’t about grading on the curve, though. It’s about an industry-wide shift in TV viewing and entertainment consumerism.
This trend has been good news for both genre TV and shows that address diversity and other social issues. Not like All in the Family did, but by presenting individuals that used to be relegated to supporting roles in star positions.
It’s a mold set by The Cosby Show in the 80s but not equaled since. Some said the Fox hit Empire would be the Cosby Show of the 2000s, a program about a successful black family with honest cultural references and a broad-based appeal. But, in reality, the success of this program, and others directed at a very specific audience are a result of changing viewer habits.
As TV viewing options widen and both content and delivery system are parsed more than ever before, viewership is “siloing” … a term meant to convey higher viewership among disparate audiences to shows tailored specifically for them. This a la carte viewership might not make advertisers happy, but it can also mean more targeted – and thus more trackable – campaigns for savvy marketing teams. It’s more work, sure, but it’s also a chance for higher – and more definitive – ROI.
This parsing of the TV viewing audience is forcing producers to reconsider long-standing traditions in TV. There was a time when Will & Grace was daring. These days, having a gay lead character on a show is almost expected. Ditto having a black or other POC in a leading role. Ensemble casts are beginning to represent their viewing audiences more than in previous decades. These days a show like Seinfeld or Friends with an all-white cast would be remarkable for this reason, not in spite of it.