Demos and Dragons, or How one cable network eats its young, while underestimating the power of intersectional viewership
Bottom line: at a time when many of us may see the age of 75, or even 100, the majority of entertainment is developed for male viewers under 25, and much of it is more demanding of CGI artists than actors or writers. Virtually all Americans will spend most or all of our lives outside that vaunted “demo”, but increasingly, one single demographic is the impetus for most of the popular art developed in our culture. Love it or hate it, the recently departed Caprica was an interesting show, and about to hit its creative peak at the end of the first season, which could have provided Syfy with more Mad Men-esque prestige. Thanks to ambivalence by SyFy (about its audience, possibly its long-term costs) Caprica was almost certain to fail, but it fared better than Lone Star, killed after two weeks despite overwhelming critical acclaim for its first episodes. If we’re in a television golden age, what’s with the piss-poor planning?
Caprica – a stunningly beautiful, if flawed, science fiction show that was a prequel to the critically acclaimed show Battlestar Galactica – was recently cancelled, with its final episode first airing on Canada’s Space Channel at the beginning of December 2010, while a marathon of the last five episodes premiered on Syfy with almost no fanfare January 4th, 2011.
The show naturally intrigued many science fiction lovers – blog io9 pointed out its debt to literary SF – but had some appeal for those who love retro pop culture, as the show’s visual look was built on an arresting blend of early 1950s styles, and gleaming, 21st century chrome and glass. (It also featured an extensive virtual “steampunk” world – which, alas, was nowhere near as happy a place as Caledon on the Second Life platform!)
The high quality of the last five episodes unfortunately, were seen by very few people, thanks to Syfy’s last minute burnoff. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation, a second season might have set Caprica on course to be a truly excellent television show. Or, like Dollhouse, it might have at least had a chance to tell a complete story with the addition of a second season – and generate more long-term income through reruns (traditional and Netflix), and DVD set sales. Instead, its cancellation reiterates the shortsightedness of both the SyFy network and modern Hollywood in general.
Don Draper Warned You
Mad Men‘s mid-60s storyline has featured the development of advertising that didn’t just target but was actually driven and developed by the “youth market”. Forget class warfare: many now-classic ads from that period focused on age warfare. Suddenly there was a “Pepsi Generation”, an advertising conceit that dramatized a widening cultural gap. Tensions in the 1960s led to cute little ageist nuggets like “never trust anyone over 30″. Unfortunately, even though these mistrustful boomer teens are now themselves grandparents and leaders in communities and businesses, age bias still rules the day – especially at channels like SyFy.
Boomers today are generally still living active, intriguing (anything but moribund) lives. Yet this group of viewers, despite their very large numbers, have become persona non grata to a lot of advertisers and producers. Think hard. How often do you see 55- or 60-year olds in commercials, and when you see them, are they pushing reverse mortgages, dumbed-down cell phones, or glucosamine? (A good rule of thumb: the actors in commercials are generally selected to appear at least a decade younger than the actual target audience.)
Age bias is why a smart, tightly written show like The Good Wife, featuring an excellent ensemble cast of people aged 30 and up (for example, boomers Christine Baranski, Chris Noth, and Gary Cole, a recurring guest star) was considered a “surprise” hit. Hollywood periodically ignores the fact that a lot of people over 30 (egads, even over 50!) have television sets. In fact, the median age of TV viewers hit 50 three years ago! Some of these viewers may “time-shift” their viewing habits using the Internet, or watch DVD sets in one weekend (“nom nom nom”), but plenty of them still like good old fashioned appointment viewing or use DVRs – both of which can be easily tracked for ratings purposes. Unfortunately, even when collected properly (and DVRs have not always been counted promptly, which scuttled the renewal chances of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) numbers don’t “count” like they should, and that has to do with a fundamental disrespect for the older audience. For decades, shows like Matlock, Murder She Wrote and Touched by an Angel were successful, but scoffed at, because they were popular with older viewers; even earlier, in 1969 and 1970, CBS gutted the golden goose by enacting the “Rural Purge”: killing popular shows that were attractive to older viewers outside of urban areas.
Caprica is certainly not a “rural” show. But it had a mix of interesting storylines developed for an intersection of viewing audiences: teenagers, young to middle-aged adults, and forward-thinking boomers.
Mad Men has garnered laurels and entered the popular consciousness attracting a mixed audience both of people who remember the sixties, and those who don’t (i.e. those who were there). Like Caprica, it doesn’t fit cookie cutter expectations for a TV series. The beauty is, it doesn’t have to – it’s on basic cable, where singles and doubles can still bring in solid incomes. Mad Men provides great prestige for AMC, and created a phenomenon with legs (think about all the places you’ve seen Mad Men-influenced styles, from dresses to furniture, to greeting cards).
Syfy discovered that Battlestar Galactica was providing them with critical acclaim; Caprica would enable them to continue this legacy, and presumably was going to be greenlit. Of course, in Hollywood, you can get the green light, drive out of Development Hell, and still end up in the Hiatus Hills.
Modern Hollywood’s preponderence of big budget popcorn movies and its penchant for cancelling critically acclaimed, devoted-fanbase TV shows like Caprica (Dollhouse, Firefly, Freaks and Geeks, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Jericho, Journeyman, Andy Richter, Homefront to name a few) – emanates from the same misguided directive: sell to teenage boys first, second, and then maybe throw a bone to everyone else later. Any of these cancelled shows could have become a prestige product with a lasting impact. Firefly and Freaks and Geeks in particular have had enormous influence, though neither show lasted beyond a season. And neither of these were pushed heavily for pre-sale in foreign markets, as last year’s Flash Forward was. Imagine how Fox and NBC could have benefited both creatively and financially if these shows had been treated as the gems they were.
And why focus on teenage boys? It’s a long-standing belief by advertisers and producers that women will watch what men like, but not the other way around, starting with cartoons (and toy tie-ins) produced for grade schoolers. Younger people’s buying habits are also assumed to be easier to mold. Interestingly, look at the users behind the many classic film and TV accounts on Tumblr and Twitter. Many classic film fans are younger ladies who Hollywood would have us believe are exclusively interested in Twilight and “rpatz”, but instead mount spirited defenses of lesser-known goddesses like Norma Shearer.
Why do so many women love classic movies and television? Well, because they’re good – but also because, despite the much broader role Western women have in the modern world, if you’re a woman and want to identify with an on-screen heroine who’s more than window-dressing, there’s often more meat in the films of the 1930s and the sitcoms of the 1960s and ’70s.
Mars Needs Women – But Channels like SyFy Are Ambivalent
Caprica, which was a fusion of two series both pitched to Syfy, was supposedly planned from the beginning to entice women watchers.
Despite comments made by former network head Bonnie Hammer regarding “fantasy” and its popularity with women, the SyFy channel doesn’t appear to be completely committed to shows that would attract female viewers and still count as “speculative fiction” (i.e. Buffy; Xena: Warrior Princess; Star Trek). Warehouse 13 and indie scrapper Sanctuary stand out in the line-up, but look at what surrounds them – not only the other shows and dashed-off movies, but the commercials as well. Not a lot of glucosamine here, but the network is thick with the stench of Axe body spray.
Do fans of Warehouse 13, Sanctuary, or Eureka find that adventurous, light-hearted tone they enjoy in other movies and series on the network? No. They are greeted by cinematic gems like Carnosaur, and the increased presence of scripted reality shows like Ghost Hunters and WWE wrestling. A network can certainly program for multiple audiences, of course, including smart, over-25 year old science fiction fans who also love wrestling, but with Warehouse an unalloyed hit, it was hard to understand why SyFy insisted on mixing in WWE wrestler “Dashing” Cody Rhodes into a 2nd season episode.
Meanwhile, even after the gender change of pivotal characters in the original Battlestar Galactica, women viewers were assumed to be turned off by the critically acclaimed reboot series. This sounds eerily familiar to the supposed female focus groups for the original Star Trek who were uncomfortable with the concept of “space” itself. Yet over the long term, Star Trek has been a huge, gender-neutral hit. Galactica, like the retooled Doctor Who, appears to have the same potential. Simply visit LiveJournal, where you’ll find a preponderance of femme BSG fans. And why else did a character played by Tahmoh Penikett survive nuclear fallout, after a presumed death in the miniseries, if not his incredible appeal among female viewers?
Showrunners also explained that Caprica takes place 50 years earlier, is set planet-side, and would remind fans of Dallas. Publicly making such a comparison probably turned off some fanboys born after Dallas’ golden years, who have no idea what fun the Texas nighttime soap was, or how many millions of men were riveted by JR and Bobby’s sibling rivalry. The serial format of storytelling is often coded as “feminine” (note how often “soap” is used as a pejorative, even though serials have become the dominant story format on nighttime series, including reality shows), and marketers have made billions off the teenage male fear of being perceived as “girly”. Whoops.
Hostile maneuvers on a soap are more likely to take place in the boardroom or the bedroom, rather than in space or on a literal battlefield. Even with the Tauron “mafia” depicted throughout the serial, Caprica’s emphasis on religion, business deals, and philosophy was going to disappoint a casual Galactica fan chiefly there for the bloodletting and CGI space battles, and who considered relationship drama to be “soap”. Syfy conceded to these casual, teenage fans by announcing a new series, Blood and Chrome, that would be action-oriented and cover the war years of Commander Adama, played as a 60-something by Edward James Olmos on Galactica, but presented as a young, buff antihero in the new series.
Failure to Thrive? or Failure to Plan?
One way Hollywood shoots itself in the foot, long term, is by pouring most of their money into cheap, scripted reality shows, which don’t sell well in reruns or on DVD. An even bigger portion of the pie goes to SFX-heavy, explosion-ridden blockbuster fodder aimed at teenagers, which is far more likely to be pirated than say, The Black Swan (infamous Natalie Portman-Mila Kunis scene excluded).
Creative endeavors are always a bit of a crapshoot, as well. And it’s wrong to attribute a Hollywood failure to stupidity, when a “executive decision” is more deeply hidden. Caprica probably had a death warrant signed months before it ever premiered on television.
The Caprica Times blog put together a wonderful diagram that shows the progression of Caprica’s pilot and episodes. Broadly, it took SyFy close to two years to show one shortened season of Caprica! It would have been a creative triumph, if the show had succeeded with such little actual time used to stir viewer appetites. There’s no earthly reason to believe the show was either expected to succeed, or that such success was ever desired by the network.
In all likelihood, the network probably decided that sticking to a safer formula of wrestling, reality, and exploitation movies would save them money and time. Caprica’s CGI budget would only have gone up and up, as the Cylon robots’ screen time increased, and as actors’ salaries presumably grew season to season. Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons, after all, looked like human beings – thus cutting the need for CGI in many “ship-bottle” episodes.
It wasn’t a mistake for Caprica to have been developed. Its art direction and computer graphics were beautiful, integrating the fantastic world design much better than ABC’s remake V, which almost certainly boasts a higher budget.
It had a talented cast, though it had a major problem, in that the most sympathetic character was likely Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz), a teenage girl who joins a religious terrorist group. Joss Whedon’s love for angsting up his characters aside, if your characters suffer (or make others suffer) week after week, with only the tiniest sliver of dark humor to punch up the grim proceedings, or if your heroes ‘ clay feet keep cracking into dust, that can be a bit of a turnoff for new viewers, especially amidst our current economic climate. Another Syfy show with a passionate group of fans and a built-in audience, Stargate Universe, didn’t give their viewers a Shirley Temple-style joyride, either, especially in comparison to the effervescent Warehouse 13, and was likewise cancelled.
Unfortunately, Caprica and Lone Star seem to be harbingers of the future of TV. Well written storylines, great acting and technical details, hobbled by a lack of support and marketing. Audience members may just have to settle for watching their favorite shows as long as they’re available – which may be several months, or only for two or three episodes. The more organized fans have gotten, the less respected their voices seem to be – no group will ever again have the same shocking impact of Bjo Trimble’s Star Trek renewal fight. Networks are getting wise, and also more cunning: why renew the show when we can throw them a bone by putting the last few episodes out on DVD, or making it available on Hulu? That’ll shut them up.
But indie battlers like Sanctuary, The Guild, and Dr. Horrible augur a brighter future for show-runners. When your own network won’t fully support you, why not take the reins yourself?