Not that long ago, “niche” was a term of condescension. Mass media were ubiquitous, and finding large audiences was the organising principle behind everything from music to film, television and journalism.
But mass media is on its way out, and the pursuit and influence of niche audiences has fundamentally reshaped everything from the music industry to publishing. Now it’s reshaping television.
Smaller, niche audiences now have a lot of sway, and they’re influencing not only what kinds of television shows are commissioned, but also how those shows are made.
In this niche world, viewers who once watched shows chosen for them by people they’d never met can now watch exactly what they want to watch - and nothing else.
The fashionable term being given to this process is “digital disruption” and the destination it’s leading us to is a media “universe” quite unlike the one that came before it.
Amazon Studios’ boss Roy Price put it this way in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2014:
Let’s say you had a show where 80% of the people you show it to think it’s pretty good. They might watch it, but none of those people think it’s a great show nor is it their favorite show.
Then you have another show where only 30% of people like it. But for every single one of them, they’re going to watch every single episode and they love it. Well, in an on-demand world, show No. 2 is more valuable.
Price’s point is this: when television executives commission shows their priority now may be to find “a specific voice and a specific artist” that will attract a loyal fan base.
Price’s comments point to what we might call the first rule of niche media – the first of five new rules described below.
1. Content must have edge
If the idea with mass media was to knock the edges off shows so as not to offend anyone, the idea with niche media is to leave the edges on – in fact, to sharpen them.
Edge, specificity, voice, authenticity: these are the qualities that induce the sustained belief of audiences and the passion of fans – Price’s 30%. In the vast clutter of digital media, it’s these qualities that cut through.
An example is Jennifer Peedom’s extraordinary film Sherpa. What began as a story about climbing Everest from a sherpa’s point of view became a window into the tense conflict that arose in the aftermath of an icefall that killed 16 Sherpas in April 2014.
The power and emotion of the story captured the attention of Discovery Channel, which saw that “it brings us somewhere we’ve never been before”.
Discovery will air the film simultaneously in more than 200 countries in 2016 — a flagship for the channel — and is releasing it in US cinemas in time to qualify for next year’s Oscar race.
2. Audiences can be gathered early
In the mass media, the audience were always the last people to see the show. In niche media, by contrast, audiences can and should be present at the creation.
Australian producer Chloe Rickard is one of the new generation of producers bringing audience feedback into the creative process.
Working with Christiaan Van Vuuren and Nick Boshier, Rickard and her team produced more than 50 segments for the Bondi Hipsters web series, reaching more than 10 million viewers. From these beginnings came the television spin off Soul Mates, produced for the ABC.
The spin off had the benefit of a proven audience whose feedback helped shape the development process.
Rickard also produced the improvised comedy series No Activity for new streaming service Stan.
For this show Rickard was able to test pilot scenes with audiences during development – providing crucial proof-of-concept.
This diminishes the risk television networks take when they take a show on; if a producer can demonstrate proof-of-concept in this way they have more power to negotiate contracts and placement of their production.
3. An enterprise, not a project
When an audience strongly believes in a film or show they are more likely to be interested in its sequel - or a new storyline germinated in the same storyworld.
They’re also more likely to download to own, buy the DVD, the T shirt and the book about the making-of.
A recent example is Damon Gameau’s That Sugar Film, a film that started life as “one man’s journey to discover the bitter truth about sugar”.
You can stream the film from the filmmaker for $7.99, buy it for $21.99, invest in an “action toolkit” for your school or download the app for free.
Furthermore the audience for a film offered online is inherently global, the internet being no respecter of borders. Therefore the audience, though niche, may be large.
This deeper, larger interest means the film or show begins to look more like a continuing enterprise than a one-off project (the traditional structure of a film or television show).
Producers in turn become more like enterprise owners than project managers.
The implications ripple all the way through the financing and ultimately the valuation of the project-turned-enterprise.
This is a promising twist for producers.
4. Partners come running
A show with a passionate global audience is a magnet. It’s a chance to connect with a defined segment of the population that is paying close attention.
The attraction is strong for companies and institutions struggling to be heard in the global media cacophony.
For Damon Gameau, the chance to present his film at the philanthropy forum Good Pitch led to financial backing from BUPA and Diabetes Australia.
Their backing allowed Gameau to recruit an “outreach” producer and develop That Sugar App and the action toolkit for schools.
5. It’s all television
Whether you’re sitting back watching the big screen in your lounge room or peering at the screen on your mobile phone, it’s television. Whether it’s traditional “linear” programming or a show delivered “over the top” (that is, via internet), it’s television. A 45 minute episode or a three minute grab, yep - that’s TV too.
But it’s no longer a mass medium, even though more people than ever before are watching it.
For producers the rules are changing fundamentally. We are just beginning to understand how.