Saturday, May 26, 2012

Familiarity Breeds Contempt? Not Hardly

Several members of my online writing group are in that most frustrating part of the writing cycle where they are sending work out to agents and publishers, waiting on pins and needles and dealing with the inevitable slew of rejections that are, hopefully, the prelude to eventual offers of publication or representation.  This has led to a spirited discussion of the role of “gatekeepers” in the rapidly changing publishing world.  Are they really interested in bringing new voices to readers, or are they only interested in higher profits?
Without claiming any special knowledge, I would assert that they are interested in both, but the two are sadly less compatible than they once might have been.  It’s always been the case that everyone wants to find the next big thing, but once they do, everyone else feels the need to jump on the bandwagon and not get off until diminishing returns force them to look elsewhere.

Star Trek was nearly cancelled
after one season
I would also posit that some combination of the increasing homogenization of our external world and the insecurity caused by environmental, social and economic upheaval makes people crave the familiar, which thanks to the internet, is always at their fingertips.

Last week, a virtual earthquake shook the radio station where I am a chattel worker – um, I mean unpaid producer.  Our Interim General Manager announced a new morning lineup, including a slightly revamped version of the old Morning Show, which was taken off the air a year and a half ago.  The former Morning Show producers and hosts have made it their single-minded focus for the last year and a half to bring it back, blaming its cancellation for every problem the station has ever had, from lack of money to declining listenership.  This despite the fact that the show was cancelled in the first place because the station had a half million dollar budget shortfall – which has now been made up, and that the station’s subscriber base has remained relatively constant (and low) since the 1950s.  Film critic Pauline Kael, who volunteered at the station, complained when she left in 1963 that management was not doing enough to increase listener sponsorships.  At that time there were about 17,000; at our peak in 2003, we had about 28,000, which had dropped to around 20,000 before the most recent layoffs.  In the same period, California’s population grew by 225%, and KPFA is heard through one-third of the state.

In their campaign to get the Morning Show reinstated, the producers and their supporters had viciously and publicly attacked Interim General Manager Andrew Phillips.  They also embroiled the station and its parent network in costly lawsuits (which were thrown out), picketed the station repeatedly, and at times encouraged their supporters to give money to a separate Morning Show fund instead of to the station.  Andrew had said very publicly several times that the show would not go back on the air.  Many staff on the other side of station politics reacted to last week’s announcement with shock and horror, feeling the message it sends is that bullying pays.

Staff also feel that we’re moving backward rather than forward.  The Morning Show was a traditional news magazine, produced and hosted by paid staff, covering the issues that are important to KPFA’s core audience, which is 65% white men over [50].  Its replacement was a show called The Morning Mix, produced by a diverse, rotating group of unpaid staff.  The style and issue focus of the Mix vary, depending on who is producing and hosting.  The paid producers at the station have refused to help them, so the production quality also varies.  Some listeners like it much better than the old Morning Show, some stopped listening altogether, some like certain hosts and hate others.  The show has steadily built both audience and fundraising capacity over the last fourteen months.  It has definitely brought in new voices and listeners.
When the new-old show, “Up Front” debuted last week, in the middle of the fund drive, it raised three times as much money as any other single hour during this drive.  However, there’s some indication that the new show might be pulling money from similar shows.

I recently heard George Lucas talking about how he could not get a studio to make “Red Tails.”  I mean, this is the guy that made Star Wars!  But studio execs didn’t believe he could get people to go see a movie about Black fighter pilots.  When the film did well, these executives were shocked.  “Hollywood studios were stunned by how well the No. 2 film, George Lucas banner film Red Tails, did in matinees today. Until they discovered that the Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox movie’s marketing inside the African-American community resulted in busloads of schoolkids and midday filmgoers for the Tuskegee airmen’s story.”

Brenda Chapman had to fight
to convince Pixar to make a film
with a female action hero
It is true, though, that you cannot build an audience overnight.  You have to do it over time.  In bygone days, television and radio stations could sometimes take the time to do that, because people did not have that much choice.  When I was growing up, we got four television channels.  If you didn’t like a show, you had a strong incentive to give it a chance to grow on you, if it was on at a time when you wanted to watch television.  Some of the most popular shows ever were nearly cancelled after their first season.  Star Trek was saved from the ax by a letter-writing campaign after its first season, but cancelled after three because of low ratings, only to live forever in late-night reruns and spinoffs.  “Cagney& Lacey,” which caused hours of angst for me and my politically correct feminist friends (because we all loved it), was renewed only after CBS replaced too-butch Meg Foster with the more “feminine” Sharon Gless.  The show was cancelled again after its first season, and again restored by viewer organizing.

Now, no one would take such a chance on a show that was losing market share.  They can’t afford to, because not only will they lose audience during that time slot, but they might lose it permanently.  If people flip the dial, they will probably flip it back, but if they turn off the TV and turn on their computer or download something on their Kindle Fire, they may never come back.  Check out "The 15 Best TV Shows That Were Canceled Too Soon" to find out what you've missed because of this instant make-it-or-break-it mentality.

That’s why authors, performers and producers have to spend so much time “building platform,” something else we talk a lot about in my writing group.  If you want anyone to take a chance on you, you have to show that you already have an audience.

We like what’s familiar.  That’s why series do so well, whether in print or on film.  I have to admit, if I have a choice of a show I never heard of or a rerun of “Law & Order,” I’m likely to pick the rerun, even if I’ve seen it five times already.  I do watch new things, I read books by new authors, but I like to mix them liberally with things I’m accustomed to.  Obviously, this is not unique to me, or “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1”, “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” and the all-important “Cars 2” would not have been the top grossing movies of 2011.

What is it about us, I wonder, that makes us seek the comfort of what we know, even when we realize that everything familiar was new once?  How do you decide to try something new, and how long do you give it?


  1. Funny, within an hour of reading this post the following arrived in the Science Daily headlines email:

    The science of re-runs: Why we watch our favorite episode of a TV show, or listen to a favorite song, over and over again (May 29, 2012) --

    Reruns of television shows and movies allow for people to watch their favorite moments over and over again. But why do people do it? What drives so much consumer motivation to enjoy the same activity repeatedly? Researchers have determined that the "re-consumption" as she calls it, is due to the guaranteed outcome, the enhanced viewing that results from the repeated action, or the rediscovery of subtle details...


  2. It`s a good question. I need a balance between the tried-and-true pleasure vs. the new, shiny thing. It takes energy to watch or read something unfamiliar. It`s a new relationship which I have to give attention to.

    I don't know that I give anything that long. I'm notoriously short of patience I think... :)

  3. I try to give things a chance, but half the time it's a rehash of a show that was already popular and somebody decided to go with the same idea since the original did well. So rare is it to find a show that's actually original *and* interesting. I'm so tired of reality shows. And half the time you find a show that's a little different and you fall in love just to have the network yank it before it gets a fan base (just like FOX did with The Finder recently. I'm actually part of a group on FB trying to Save the Finder :). The studios anymore lack patience, which makes the fans lose patience as well. I drift back to my reruns because at least the networks can't take away what's already been done. Just wish somebody would do reruns of Night Court :)

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