I’m always surprised when it takes me more than two seasons to catch onto a good show – yet it happens ALL the time. Arrested Development and Veronica Mars didn’t become two of my all-time favorite shows until YEARS after they were cancelled. Supernatural had started it’s sixth season by the time I became enamoured, Dexter was in its fourth.
How is it that certain TV shows become mainstream hits overnight, while others silently succeed in the dark? Supernatural is a widely popular show, with a highly dedicated fanbase, yet it receives very little mainstream attention – even in it’s 6th season.
So in order to understand this phenomenon, I try and dissect why people watch what they watch.
At the network level, NBC, FOX, ABC, HBO all have their flagship programs, the big buzz, money making series – and it is these shows that that the advertising funds are poured into. These are the summer blockbusters of television. Spectacle cultural phenonmena like Glee and Mad Men. Low budget animation series like Family Guy, The Simpson, South Park. Things that have either proven formulas for success or instant niche explosions. Wide reaching content. The hit programs on any network in turn tend to define audience perception of what the given company is all about. 30 Rock and the Office have defined NBC as the “quirky off beat indie” network. FOX, because of it’s a member of the Newscorp family is known for its conflicting image of hyper-conservatism, coming from its news programming, and crass animated humor (Family Guy and The Simpsons) and semi-wholesome hit family programming (Glee.) ABC, owned by Disney? Family television. CW? Gossip Girl. Sex and blood, baby! That shiz sells.
While these network trends/stereotypes aren’t always true, they limit the openness of viewership and hinder the widening of their demographics. For the longest time I rejected the possibility that Supernatural could be a quality television program because it was on the CW. Boy was I wrong.
Furthermore, the hyper success of one television show tends to funnel the resources and attention of both the industry and the viewers away from the other less-hyped programs that are out there.
Then, not everyone has, or can afford to have, premium television – putting Starz, HBO and Showtime at an inherent disadvantage for viewership numbers. Furthermore, the edgier type of programming put on premium television limits itself to an older less conservative fan base, forcing it into a 18-40 year old liberal demographic, considerably less widespread than “easy a” cable programming.
But this is all the technical stuff, television fandom is much more than numbers and time slots, it’s the heart and soul of millions.
This is what makes the idea of “cult” media so fascinating – it separates from the technical, the structural and the industrial constraints and parameters of it’s network or context and succeeds without million dollar advertising campaigns, big stars or prime time slots – they succeed because of the passion of their fans and the intensity of viewer participation.
And if that ain’t love? I don’t know what is.