Narrow appeal – the secret to a larger audience?

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SuzelleDIY (Image credit: Adriaan Oosthuizen)

Have we finally reached FX Network president John Landgraf’s peak TV? By now I think we’ve all seen the stats on the meteoric rise in the number of scripted original series – up from 182 series in 2002 to 455 in 2016. No, you’re not imagining it, there is way more to watch today than ever before. Need more proof? Netflix is reportedly spending $6 billion on content in 2017. I’ll say that again slowly. Six. Billion. Dollars. In. One. Year.

I’ve no doubt we’re in a golden age of TV. Whether we’re at the peak or not is, in a sense, irrelevant. The one thing we know about golden ages is that sooner or later, they all come to an end. Perhaps a more relevant question is: what comes next?

I’ll back up just for a second. So is it inevitable that this incredible era of great TV, started by the likes of The Sopranos and cemented by Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, will collapse in on itself? There’s a great article by Ian Leslie in the Financial Times (‘Watch it while it lasts: our golden age of television’) that, among other things, draws parallels between the current golden age of TV with the 1870-1930 golden age in Parisian art.

Leslie explains how the Paris golden age began. Rebel artists, long constrained by the production and consumption hegemony of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, began holding their own exhibitions and collaborating among themselves and developing new styles. Commercial galleries sprang up along with a support structure of independent critics. In short, artists became free to experiment, and with the advent of this distribution channel giving direct access to consumers, the Academy was sidestepped and neutered. The boom ensued.

Sound familiar? Disintermediated by new technology (cable, satellite, DVD, PVR and latterly internet TV), the stranglehold of a few all-powerful TV networks was broken. With content buyers no longer demanding shows that conform to staid, safe network rules, the floodgates opened and here we are.

But Leslie warns that golden ages “contain the seeds of their own demise.” In Paris, as the boom progressed;

 

A hierarchy of galleries had become established, with the big ones exerting disproportionate market power. Artists were snapped up by dealers when they were young and encouraged to develop distinctive, consistent styles. This made them easier to market to top galleries, and better off, but less likely to engage in the kind of collaborations with fellow artists that spawned new movements. In short, once the dealers and the artists figured out reliable ways to make money, the art became more predictable and less interesting.

 

This sounds eerily familiar. TV budgets are getting larger and productions more expensive, but are we in danger of escalating costs crushing creativity and risk taking? How many more safe-bet series and movies based on existing character universes before audiences revolt?

The other challenge is viewer fatigue. Like an addict, we need bigger and bigger hits to feel anything. I’m thinking 1977 Star Wars vs. 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy II. Both (in my view) fantastic movies, but it’s like comparing a scalpel to a sledgehammer. The ‘we need a bigger bang’ mentality will surely hit a wall eventually.

So where does this leave Showmax and our push into original productions? We think the answer may lie, at least in part, in going hyper-local. Rather than chasing huge budgets and measuring each show against the potential for cross-border appeal, we’re going the other way.

Our first taste of this was in Poland, where we launched Showmax with incredible Hollywood and British content, but also with a suite of Polish films and an episodic political satire Ucho Prezesa (The Chairman’s Ear). A Polish political satire – think about that for a second – dub it, subtitle it, do what you want, but the jokes will never carry. Yet when it comes to our viewing figures, it turns out that specialised local content is exactly what works.

Turning to South Africa, we’re currently in the process of filming Tali’s Wedding Diary. It’s a mockumentary series about a self-obsessed Sandton princess who’s moved to Cape Town and hired a documentary crew to film the build-up to her wedding to her property-agent fiancé. The show stars Julia Anastasopoulos, who’s probably best-known for her YouTube alter-ego SuzelleDIY. If you’re not South African, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to get the humour. But that’s entirely the point. If you want to connect to an audience numb from ever-greater spectacle, perhaps it’s time to whisper, not shout.

I love The Big Bang Theory. Showmax subscribers love The Big Bang Theory. The entire planet, it seems, loves The Big Bang Theory. So who in their right mind starts with the premise that ‘I’m going to do the same thing, but better’? We’d rather give our South African customers the option of the best Hollywood shows out there and at the same time offer something nobody else has – truly local programming made just for them. And we want to do the same in Kenya, and we’re doing the same in Poland, and so on.

No, hyper-local content isn’t new – the SABC (among others) has been doing it for years. What is new is niche hyper-local content on an SVOD platform that combines local and international in one place. I’m not suggesting that hyper-local is going to replace big budget, but I do think the pendulum could well start swinging away from the current model. Summing all this up: thinking small might just be the next step in unlocking larger audiences. We’re certainly looking forward to finding out.

By Akash Bhatia, chief financial officer & head of Content, Showmax

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