Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Where Did Everybody Go?

I've been thinking about putting together an essay for a while now on the subject of declining readership. This isn't it, but consider this a place holder with some half-baked ideas in the meantime.

A bit of anecdotal "evidence" (based very little on anything like hard facts. Some of this I can prove, but some of it is based on assumptions that could be incorrect):
So, my question is this: With an ever increasing population, where the heck did all of the audience go?

I usually see these facts discussed in isolation, and if ever any linkages are made between two or more, they usually are attributed to a single cause. For example, the fact that fewer people are reading anything these days can explain the decline in book sales, newspaper readership, and magazine circulation numbers. But there are other factors: collapsing distribution systems, increases in production costs (pulp paper prices, for example), competition from other media (video games, DVD), and the ever looming threat of piracy, of course.

There's a corollary here, and I think it's an important one. Inarguably, and irrespective of quality, there is a wider range of choice in entertainment than at any point in the recent past, if in fact ever in history. More channels on your cable box, new forms of media that didn't exist a couple of decades ago, more new comic titles on the shelves, newpublishers and imprints almost every year. And while there may be a decline in variety--see the whole "vanishing genres" comment above--I think there has arguably been a rising waterline of quality in virtually ever media. Perhaps not at the high end--there are few standouts on the order of Citizen Kane or Watchmen or The Stars My Destination in any given year--but most definitely at the low end. People complain about the poor quality of Hollywood blockbusters, but is any given flick littering the screens of the local cineplex really harder to watch than Raw Deal? And love reality television shows or hate them--I'm personally not a fan--are they really worse than Battle of the Network Stars? Really? And I'd argue that in some media the high end has improved. I challenge anyone to point out anything on American television before ten years ago that was anything like as good as Deadwood or Rome.

Bigger population, more choice, rising quality, but shrinking audiences. Why is this happening? Well, I'm not certain, but I think the answer may be in the question. Here's my half-baked theory: The potential audience for entertainment expands as the population grows, while at the same time the number of entertainment choices expands at a similar rate, but the audience for each form of entertainment shrinks.

What can be done about it? Should anything be done about it?

I've begun to suspect in recent years that the idea of mass media, as it was commonly understood throughout the last century, might have ended. Thirty years ago, one could be reasonably assured that a majority of the population watched the previous night's episode of a top-rated television show. A top-selling recording audience in the middle of the last century would have been familiar to huge segments of the population. And when the local cineplex only had two screens, it was a sure bet that any moviegoers would have seen one or the other.

Today, though, with so many choices and different forms of media, a majority of Americans are likely never to have tuned into a top-rated television show. And two coworkers could independently go to a new release a week, and even if they were going to the same cinema could manage never to see the same movie as the other. Countless millions of Americans have never even heard of any of the New York Times best selling novels for the past year, much less read them.

I've been fairly convinced that the "long tail" is a real phenomenon, but I think it remains to be seen what the economics of it will be over the long haul. But is the long tail sympomatic of something even farther reaching? Is mass media a thing of the past?

(There are other wrinkles here, of course, which I don't have time fully to articulate: limited choice in Big Box retail, distribution monopolies, the sorry state of the economy, et cetera, et al. I know things aren't as simple as I've outlined, but I did say this was half-baked.)

I was going to suggest you read "The Long Tail," and then you go ahead and reference it. In any case, I think you're hitting the nail on the head, here -- there are just so many more choices, now -- which I say as I type on my laptop while my desktop burns a DVD.
Interesting article. My gut reaction is that dimminishing free time is the culprit along with lots of new diversions that are competing with the time that we spend on the older pastimes. The time people spend on the internet for instance has to come from somewhere. And there's also a vast number of people downloading movies and television off the internet.

Money may also be a factor. When I was a kid I could afford a steady diet of comics. Now that I'm a working adult I can't really justify the 50-80 dollars a month for what amounts to less than a day's worth of reading. Not when I can get a day's worth of good reads online for free.

Tastes have also evolved. A lot of people complain that the big Hollywood blockbusters are crap nowadays but truth be told your average Hollywood film nowadays compares very favourable in quality to your average Hollywood flick just twenty years ago (we often make the mistake of comparing a drek contemporary movie with the classics of yesteryear).

Personaly I think this is all probably a good thing. We're becoming more discerning, are presented with more choices and we've got a lot of inexpensive, advertising free options. Personaly I don't want the clock turned back to the 1970s media wise.
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