Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The fandom niche

Those of us into science fiction or fantasy, and the related culture of geekish pursuits, are used to thinking of ourselves as a niche market, because Hollywood insists on treating us that way and telling us that's what we are. But are we?

Sure, at any given time there's usually one class of TV show that's more popular than our shows. Right now it's procedurals (Law and Order and CSI plus a lot of ancillary shows), though "reality" shows are still huge. So we're not the biggest market they have. But that doesn't mean we're a niche market. If you add things up, our movies and TV shows and books and other products are a market at least as big as any other, and perhaps bigger. This is more noticeable at the movie theater, where almost all the blockbusters are our movies, than on TV, though even there, what was the biggest TV show of the last decade, with the biggest amount of buzz around its finale? Yes, a science fiction show, though one that didn't admit that's what it was for about a whole season.

And that's really where they get away with treating us as a niche market. It has nothing to do with how much size, or power, or money, we have. It has nothing to do with how important we are to keeping Hollywood in business. The reason is much simpler and much more insidious.

Hollywood takes for granted that we're already sold. Whenever they make a comic book movie or a movie involving spaceships, swords, or people blowing each other up, we're going to be there. Maybe for one movie we'll go five times and buy every version of the DVD, while for another, we'll only go once, or just rent it. But we're sold. They don't have to court us, woo us, try to persuade us. To Hollywood, we're the sluts they can always get whenever they want us.

So when it comes to marketing stuff, they typically ignore us, or treat us as a niche market, specifically because they don't need to court us. Instead, they play up their movie or show as being "not just sci-fi" in hopes of luring in all the other people, the people who need courting, many of whom really don't have any particular type of show or movie they like, so they're ripe for convincing. It's simple math. Market a show as sci-fi and you only get the people you probably had anyway. Market it as something more "mainstream" and less "niche" (the way first season Lost was sold) and you'll get us and a bunch of other people.

That's how they almost lost us with Big Bang Theory, now one of the most popular shows on TV but when it started almost a loss. They marketed it so heavily to everyone-but-us that they actually almost lost us, and we are its best fans, its core audience. I remember the early ads made it seem like it was going to be a show about this mainstream girl and her friends, and oh, they also have some wacky geek neighbors to make fun of. That's why I didn't watch the first season until later when a friend told me to give it a try. Judging from the talk on some TV fora I visit, this was a common experience for us fandom geeks.

Of course, sometimes they don't bother to go for the "mainstream" audience because a show is just too unavoidably sci-fi. Once they decide there's no point in going for the other audience, then they pander to us extra hard. Instead of treating the sci-fi elements as if they're embarassed of them, they run them out and focus on them, and on the explosions and gadgets. If we were really the unimportant niche market they like to make us think we are, they wouldn't even make shows like that, but they do. That's because, even if those shows are typically a lot more expensive to make, they still make a profit. Because we are a big, big bunch of people. We're a powerful force in the market. Just look at a list of the top grossing movies of all time and you'll see how much of it is us. We should stop acting like we're the freaks on the fringe. We're one of the most important markets that exists -- maybe the most important, since we're reliable.

1 comment:

Charlton said...

When I read posts like this one, I realize that I really *am* a niche market. I think I've seen The Big Bang Theory once, because everyone told me how wonderful it was, and I could only conclude that Georges LemaƮtre or his heirs and assigns should contact their lawyers instanter.

Of course, it's difficult to market to me when I don't subscribe to cable or watch broadcast TV, listen primarily to public radio, and have Flash blocked in all my web browsers.