US broadcasters do not target casual viewers but people who have lived through historic events
Listening to some broadcasters and media observers discussing the significance of hit shows such as The Ghost Whisperer or the Sixth Sense, some details are getting lost.
Not only did the shows feature compelling stories that would entice people to keep watching in their regular time slot (The Ghost Whisperer ran for six seasons) but shows such as them also attracted people who were actively curious about their characters’ journeys.
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Instead of trying to find casual viewers on TV channels such as BBC One and Channel 4, US broadcasters attempt to attract people who really want to know the lives of characters in the long-term. In fact, just a few years ago, cable companies such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast started giving away channels for free to people who watched them for three years.
Once US broadcasters catch onto the trend, they change programming strategy to connect with casual viewers. Instead of producing more sitcoms and dramas with familiar faces, they target series that help people to pass the time when they are stuck on the bus or at the office. What’s surprising is that the viewers who are most interested in these high-quality “long-view” TV shows are not always young females.
The Sixth Sense: a ‘spectacularly surprising rise’ for Stephen King
To give examples of shows that have gained high numbers over the long term, you first have to look at horror movies. The Sixth Sense, a film based on a best-selling book series by Stephen King, came out in 1999 and the top episode of the show on 25 February 2003 is currently being watched by 12.2 million people, according to Variety.
The Sixth Sense – ‘Pierce, come here.’ Photograph: Columbia TriStar
This was a spectacularly surprising rise for a movie that is almost two decades old. According to the film site Rotten Tomatoes, 41% of the movie’s audience was male, 46% of them were older than 35 and 56% were older than 50.
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Meanwhile, the top episode of the TV show The Wonder Years, which ran for nine seasons between 1987 and 1993, is currently being watched by 12.2 million people, according to the US figures provided by Nielsen Media Research. This was a serious rise, despite the fact the audience for the show is almost evenly split between men and women.
The show focused on the television entertainment reporter Kevin Arnold and his six brothers who all played instrumental roles in different aspects of his life – from childhood to fatherhood. Approximately 42% of the show’s audience was female, 50% were older than 25 and 66% were older than 50.
The Wonder Years: ‘Wonder factor’
There is a point in both instances where the number of viewers does not reach the number needed for advertisers to be happy. Part of the increase could be due to the longer life of the TV series and the general shift to watching TV on catch-up services. But what’s also remarkable is that the numbers grew without the intervention of network executives making decisions based on audience numbers.
From as far back as 2015, the outgoing president of NBC, Bob Greenblatt, has talked about the importance of preserving “sense of what the show is”. More recently, British broadcaster Sky has attempted to ensure it gains loyalty from subscribers by playing up to them. The network’s new content chief, Sophie Turner Laing, told journalists last year that ratings were no longer the only means of measuring success.
Cable channels are doing the same thing in the UK, with shows such as Gracepoint, a show about detectives attempting to track down a grisly murder from the 1980s on the Sky1 channel.
Gracepoint: ‘Fans don’t go with the flow’
Gracepoint is set in a television studio in California and stars David Tennant, Anna Gunn and Michael Pena. According to Sky, the audience for the first episode dropped by three million people compared with the previous week.
In an interview with the Guardian last year, the show’s executive producer Dan Futterman argued the reason for the drop was because viewers saw it was a reboot