Appealing to the Youngest Common Denominator

New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott recently lamented Hollywood’s reliance on formulaic juvenility.  Just look at this summer’s crop of sequels, comic-book based adventures and bawdy comedies. For Scott, the issue wasn’t whether they were financially successful – many were – but whether box office success means movie-goers actually liked what they saw.

Cinemas continue to attract audiences, despite countless other entertainment options. It could be that unlike professional movie critics,  ticket buyers, both young and old, enjoy what the studios are offering. It could also be that going to a movie theater is still a relatively inexpensive (if you forgo the super combo at the concession stand), immersive and social experience. It’s a good excuse to get out of the house. For many, it would take a record string of stinkers to break their movie-going habit.

Scott’s wish that Hollywood give more original, mature and complex films a chance to find an audience has been echoed by many.  I share the sentiment. I would probably go to the theater more often if only there were more interesting choices.  But the studio statisticians aren’t about to ignore numbers like these: According to a 2007 MPAA Movie Attendance Study, “although 12-24 year-olds represent 22% of the total population in the United States, they represent 27% of all moviegoers and 41% of all frequent moviegoers.”   No surprise that the teenager perspective totally rules.

Scott is not the only one to recently express unhappiness with Hollywood’s long-accepted youth marketing strategy. Late night talk show host Craig Ferguson recently railed in his monologue against television advertisers, their obsession with the young adult demo, and how this is the reason why many shows tend to be sophomoric or, as he puts it, “why everything sucks.”

You can view Craig Ferguson’s monologue here:

The conventional wisdom, established by the television advertising industry some time back in the 1950s, is that young audiences are most valued because they represent an opportunity to build a lifetime brand relationship. Television programming executives, therefore, must design shows to reel them in; to do otherwise would be innovative, but possibly career-ending, risk-taking.

Can we expect studios and networks to continue to cater to the tastes of a young audience at the expense of the older demographic?  Or will the emerging economics of the online world enable new opportunities for producers to serve the diverse tastes of a chronologically broader audience?

Decades after U.S. homes began being wired, cable networks finally began to deliver programming with the sophistication, interwoven plotting and nuanced character development of a great novel.  Premium networks like HBO broke the mold with The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and now the basic cable networks have followed suit with such series as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Online “television,” which is associated typically with user-generated content, is often accused of celebrating juvenility.  As the technology grows up, it’ll develop into a platform that better serves a broader demographic. And then, who knows? If the quality of the content is good enough, some people might be willing to pay for it.

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