Time to embrace the changing TV landscape or die trying

Richard Yao
May 23 · 10 min read
Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

With the end of Game of Thrones, the debate over whether this marks the end of the TV monoculture has heated up again. TV monoculture, upheld by hit shows that everyone seems to watch and talk about, the shows that have become a cultural phenomenon and percolated through our collective consciousness, is the hallmark of the golden days of television, and it has been slowly breaking down over the past decade as Peak TV took over.

While it is true that there will always be breakout hit shows that drive our cultural conversation, the increasingly fragmented TV landscape — caused by an influx of OTT streaming services and an abundance of alternative entertainment options such as esports and social video — means that one, TV monoculture is getting increasingly smaller in scale and two, it will become ever more difficult to produce another hit that captures cultural attention at once.

Make no mistake, TV monoculture is not dead just because Game of Thrones ended. It will live on, but the larger circumstances and changing viewer behaviors will reshape the concept into a different beast entirely. Welcome to the end of TV monoculture as we know it. Get ready to bid farewell to “appointment TV” and embrace various streaming services as separate microcosms of cultures. For entertainment brands, it’s time to adapt your content strategy to the changing landscape. For others, there has never been a better time to become a lifestyle brand that carves out your own place in culture.

The Shifting Goalposts for Monocultural Hits

Game of Thrones aired its much-anticipated finale on Sunday. According to HBO, 13.6 million viewers tuned in to watch it live, with early numbers from streaming and on-demand channels pushing it up to 19.3 million viewers — a remarkable feat for a non-sports program nowadays. HBO also says that each episode of this final season has averaged 44.2 million viewers, a number that the finale will likely help bump up even higher in the coming days. And that’s not counting the 55 million people who follow the show via piracy¹. All things considered, Game of Thrones was a monocultural hit that dominated our cultural discourse and will live on in our collective memory as part of pop culture history, regardless of how disappointing some may find the final episodes to be.

But there was also another major TV finale that aired last week. On Thursday, The Big Bang Theory signed off after 12 seasons on CBS with 18.52 million viewers, which will likely end up well above 20 million after a week of delayed viewing. Judging by numbers alone, the long-running show is a bona fide monocultural hit, yet it barely registers in our cultural discourse. While Game of Thrones drives watercooler talk and dominates online discussions, The Big Bang Theory barely gets any media coverage outside being derided as “the worst show ever,” a “long nightmare,” and “a plague on society.” This stark contrast demonstrates that a TV show doesn’t become a “monocultural hit” just by virtue of having a large viewership; it has to drive our conversation by being a common topic that unites people. In other words, it has to become a shared cultural experience.

There are several interconnected reasons for this disparity, part of which lies in the format and the distribution: Game of Thrones is a high-budget fantasy series on premium cable, and The Big Bang Theory is a multi-camera sitcom on an ad-supported network channel. The former is a high-stakes drama known for subverting genre conventions and viewer expectations, and essentially demands to be viewed live like a sports event to avoid spoilers², while the latter never really shakes off its sitcom shackles of canned laughter and repetitive storylines, but rather is quite content in being comfort food TV for millions yet rarely appointment TV for anyone³.

Data: Axios research; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Putting aside the issue of comparing these two vastly different shows, it is also important to note that the goalpost for monoculture TV has moved quite a lot over the past two decades. In 1997, NBC canceled The Single Guy after two seasons because it only had 20 million viewers, and that is considered a particular failure because it was sandwiched between Friends and Seinfeld, two of the biggest hit shows of all time. Remember when live linear TV was a thing and time slots actually mattered in terms of driving viewership? Flash forward to today, when on-demand, time-shifted viewing has completely dismantled that concept, and the Game of Thrones finale is considered a monocultural hit with less than 20 million live plus same-day viewers.

A show like Game Of Thrones worked best as a communal experience, but in today’s fracturing media landscape, the size of each community is shrinking. The internet facilitates niche communities centered around specific interests, thus removing the need to assimilate into the dominant culture in order to find a sense of belonging. And because the goalposts for what qualifies as a monocultural hit have been moving down the scale, soon we could see several megahits existing simultaneously, each backed up by their passionate fanbases, but none breaking out to reach the scale of monoculture TV we know today.

From Monoculture to Walled Gardens

It’s not just because the diversification of culture has splintered into various subcultures. It is also that in the future access to TV will also become quite siloed. With the impending arrival of Disney+ and Apple TV+, not to mention the upcoming streaming services from the likes of Viacom, AT&T, and NBCU, the future of the TV landscape will continue to fracture. As subscription fatigue starts to kick in, only the biggest streaming platforms will be able to amass an audience base big enough for it to produce a monocultural hit. Therefore, all the aforementioned new entrants, with the likely exception of Disney, will struggle to steal eyeballs from the streaming services that the large majority of U.S. audience is already paying for.

Disney is a peculiar case here. The Disney brand has always been synonymous with mainstream, family-friendly content, and it is well positioned to recreate the monoculture in the age of streaming. Following the acquisition of Fox assets, it now accounts for about 40% of total U.S. box office, and it has a vault of popular IPs and franchises⁴ that it can leverage to produce a monoculture-sized hit show, or several, in the future. Gaining full control of Hulu also clears the way for Disney to create a strong subscription bundle with Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN+, making it a bundle that could very well become a microcosm of a new monoculture. The live sports content of ESPN is especially a strong driver for live appointment viewing, but it is unclear how, or if, that could translate into scripted content.

In order to do that, however, Disney will have to face some strong competition from Netflix and, to a lesser extent, the deep-pocketed Apple and Amazon. The new entrants are raising the bar on production, and TV is becoming more crowded with big-budget blockbusters, from Netflix’s Altered Carbon (reportedly $6 to 7 million per episode) to Amazon’s super-expensive Lord of the Rings series. No longer a rare thing in TV, big-budget shows are now no guarantee for hits, and neither is quality. As analyst Matthew Ball argues, the quality of any given piece of content is not only difficult to quantify, but also largely irrelevant in a streaming age where algorithms serve up content tailored to your preferences and interests. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and people have varying tastes.

Netflix is reportedly spending an unparalleled $15 billion on developing original content in 2019 to guarantee that it will have enough content for its mighty algorithms to dispatch to the right viewers and keep them satisfied. This signifies a strategy that runs counter to chasing monocultural hits, which are still valuable for streaming services (especially the new ones) for new user acquisition, but less so for Netflix today. The way Netflix releases content by the entire season to encourage binge-viewing and boost user engagement is also antithetical to building monoculture TV, which requires a weekly dispatch to keep the show in cultural conversations for an extended period of time. In contrast, Netflix shows come and go while Netflix the brand, the aggregation of all its original content, stays consistently in the cultural conversation. In a way, Netflix itself is becoming a microcosm of monoculture TV.

Unlike the scale-driven, ad-supported media companies, the direct-to-consumer business model of subscription OTT services ultimately don’t need monocultural hits to function. Instead, they just need to make sure that they make targeted content that can be delivered to the right audiences. Monocultural hits engage a large population at once, which offsets its often costly production, but niche shows drive engagement just the same, albeit on a smaller scale, and they are much easier to come by.

Apple, for example, is obviously hoping to leverage the megawatt star power it assembled for Apple TV+ content to drive consumer interest, and having a breakout hit or two will certainly make its larger ecosystem more appealing. But Apple’s ultimate goal for TV+ is not scale, as evidenced by its decision to not support Android mobile devices. The goal is engagement, especially among existing Apple users. And just like Disney, Apple could very well come out with their own media bundle and build a walled-off monoculture among its sizeable user base.

A similar argument could be made for Amazon Prime Video, but the unique positioning of Amazon does complicate the argument. For Amazon, a company that aims to take a cut out of all economic activity, scaling its services by making monocultural hits seems like a viable strategy to make the Prime membership a must-have for all U.S. households, thus locking more customers into its ecosystem. So far, outside of a couple of award-winning critical darlings, nothing from Amazon has really been able to penetrate the cultural discourse, but perhaps the aforementioned Lord of the Rings series still has a shot, considering the large built-in audience and how widely accessible Prime Video is for U.S. audiences.

Granted, there will always be shows that manage to amass a passionate fanbase and capture a significant part of the cultural conversation. After all, the entire mass media apparatus is built to capitalize on scale, and they will always attempt to tap into the cultural zeitgeist and concoct content that aims to dominate the conversation. That scale-driven objective is tied to their ad-supported business models, and that usually means producing content aimed at the mass audience with the widest appeal possible.

But, like it or not, the world is moving on from mass media. Algorithms and personal feeds are ushering in a new era of personal media, just as new formats like stories, live streaming, and interactive content continue to gain momentum. As much as we love to know what other people are watching, other people’s choices matter a lot less when everyone is getting a content feed that is self-curated and highly personalized. The filter bubble has already divided how we consume news and other written content; before long, most of us will be quarantined inside the handful of streaming platforms of our choice, trapped by a growing list of content that we mean to watch but can never seem to keep up.

For brands, the splintering of TV monoculture presents an interesting opportunity to establish cultural relevance. Our latest media trial, conducted with Twitter and Magna Global, found that culture-focused ads increase brand relevancy and consumer purchase intent. In fact, cultural relevance accounts for 25% of product purchase decisions, and being involved in culture is nearly as important as having a strong brand image. The next hit show will likely pop up on ad-free channels like Netflix and Disney+, and smart brands, especially those in the DTC space, are already creating lifestyle-oriented branded content to build their own cultural cachet.

The Specter of Monoculture

That last point, the over-abundance of TV content today, points to an interesting paradox in the demise of TV monoculture. Until the algorithms get better at recommending personalized content, most people will feel overwhelmed by the amount of content available and end up going with what’s the most popular, or what’s been the most aggressively marketed to them. Humans are by nature social animals, and there is certainly an argument to be made about how our intrinsic human need for a shared cultural experience may find a way to overcome the barriers being created by shifts in content distribution and personalized media diet. As long as this need exists, the specter of TV monoculture will linger on.

However, as digital channels take over, the velocity at which our cultural conversation moves has also accelerated. The acceptable window of cultural relevance for any piece of TV content is getting shorter. Therefore, for people that cared to gain that social capital, the most popular ones will have to be prioritized. But for most people, it is almost impossible to keep up with the newest and the latest. Time-shifted viewing has largely eroded the urgency of keeping up with scripted content, and when “appointment TV” gets harder and harder to come by in scripted content, the chance of a monoculture restoration looks slim for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, the specter of TV monoculture will live on through sports content, award ceremonies, or even reality TV competitions where the immediacy of live viewing is crucial to the enjoyment of the said content. ive sports ratings may be unraveling, but the spoiler-averse nature of the content means that it will always be able to command a sizeable live audience. The massive concentration of attention around Fortnite also points to a budding monoculture forming in gaming and esports.

And, of course, the TV landscape won’t stay fragmented forever. The generation that grows up in a very fractured environment will understandably be drawn to monoculture as a concept. Or maybe we all will, after a few years away. And someone will respond to that cultural demand for monoculture as soon as it rises. Piece by piece, they could rebuild a comprehensive content bundle and enable new ways of co-viewing, thus resurrecting the TV monoculture to scratch our need for a shared cultural experience. After all, as they say on the Iron Islands, “what is dead may never die.”

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

Richard Yao

Written by

Senior Associate of Strategy and Content, IPG Media Lab

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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