With the advent of digital media, on demand services and social integration, is a break-through smash hit, the one show, act, book, movie or song that “everyone” talks about, still possible in any form of media? Can any one piece of content still captivate a majority audience share across multiple niches? If so, who will create the next “must see” experience? In what format of media will it be delivered? How will it be distributed?
As we have expanded the means through which we consume media, and as the spectrum of available media continually widens, it becomes much more difficult for any one piece of content to rise above the niches into which consumers have segmented. There are many examples of this change in consumer behavior happening now. In the days of only four channels, it was easy to proclaim one network and one show the clear winner in the fight for audience share. But what about when there are hundreds of television options? A recent report from Nielsen points out that, while radio remains the dominant form of music discovery, teenagers are increasingly listening to YouTube as their primary music source. Is it still a hit if it generates millions of YouTube views and sets a new world record of ‘likes’ but does so long before it hits the traditional Billboard singles charts?
Niches Become Markets Unto Themselves
The markets for consumption of media have fragmented to such an extent, with consumers focused so intently on specific niches, that the complete domination of society by a single entertainer or piece of content is now a thing of the past. The issue is compounded by the vast reach of media, and our access to media, in the digital era where information has grown to such an extent that consumers are no longer starved for information, but rather, they have to make tough decisions as to what information to deliberately ignore.
Is there a popular television show that you want to watch but haven’t yet? Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Homeland perhaps? Why haven’t you watched it yet? Because these things take time and (some amount of) effort to consume. You have to selectively decide what is important enough to invest your time in. This is vastly different than the era of Dallas or the M.A.S.H. series finale when everyone tuned in and everyone talked about it for days. In the digital era, does society still care who shot J.R.? The opportunity cost of entertainment choice has never been more expensive than today where we have so many options. With this wide of an entertainment spectrum, some things simply have to be ignored. And if something is being ignored by some portion of the audience that would have traditionally tuned in, does any one piece of content still have the potential to be talked about by “everyone”?
Everything is Fragmented
50 Shades of Grey, arguably the most popular book of the past few years, started as fan fiction. If you were looking at the New York Times best seller list to find the next smash hit book, you wouldn’t have seen it there. More than likely, you weren’t looking at The Times anyway- too many other choices. Similarly, Justin Bieber was born of YouTube fame long before he graced the stages to the adoration of thousands of screaming teens. Here again, the Billboard charts and radio playlists would have been useless in identifying this pop star early in his career.
This is hardly an anomaly. Rather, it is a trend. If we look at the worldwide highest grossing movies of all time we see that a few recent releases top the list. However, if we look at the same list adjusted for inflation, it becomes clear that the must-see blockbuster is a thing of the past. You have to look all the way down to number fourteen on that list to even see a single movie from the past decade. There are simply too many movies, theaters and, perhaps more importantly, entertainment alternatives to the movie theater, for any one cinematic release to dominate the social stratosphere. The history of popular television tells a similar tale. Some of the most popular television shows of today are Game of Thrones, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Mad Men and Homeland. But when we examine the most watched television broadcasts of all time we see that in the U.S. there is not a single broadcast from the past twenty years in the top ten. Eliminate sports and current events from the list and it becomes clear that “must see” TV ended as soon as we had more than three channels to choose from. There are too many shows, too many channels, too many options for any single broadcast to rise above the noise.
Is a Smash Hit Still Possible?
Ultimately, there will be another smash hit. Much like 50 Shades of Grey or Psy’s Gangnam Style, something will come along and captivate culture across multiple consumer niches but we might not notice it happening if we are looking in the wrong direction. If the industry experts are all staring at Neilson reports and Billboard charts, how will they identify it? The simple answer is that they won’t. In the age of social media, market fragmentation and hundreds of thousands of entertainment options, it is the people who will decide the next big thing. Times have changed and if you find yourself in this industry still relying on the same old tricks, chances are you will be left behind by the next big thing. It will be old news by the time it is in the news.