TV is going through a sort of metamorphosis as the new global culture develops. Media marketers are going straight up the wall trying to find the younger audience, which apparently has had the sense to be very hard to define demographically.  The youth market has therefore been spared the horrors of mainstream marketing, if nothing else. What’s strange are the media buying patterns for networks. If you were buying jewellery, you’d make sure you were getting value for money. If you buy a TV series these days, however, the value apparently doesn’t have to be obvious.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area of the huge boom in documentaries. Reality TV may be the show pony, but documentaries are the money spinners, and they’re also the major merchandising effort for many networks. The BBC, for example, has a longstanding and well-deserved reputation for excellent documentaries. National Geographic and the Discovery Channel are also rightly famous for their documentaries. By comparison, “traditional” TV shows are relatively high turnover, but short attention span products in the market. Comedy and science fiction tend to sell better, with exceptions, than the general come-and-go series.

The TV marketing conundrum

The physics of the documentary revolution are becoming clear. The mere fact that specialist documentary channels have done so well raises a major marketing question- How much of this gigantic audience for documentaries is engaged with other TV products? From the look of the ratings, very few.

The slow but obvious demise of Reality TV is actually a cultural phenomenon, and it’s also a primary indicator of a huge shift in the market. One of the more unkind things said about Reality TV is that it’s for kids trapped in front of the TV before they’re old enough to have real lives. More accurate may be that it’s for TV networks trapped with no ideas. Industry marketing tends to be like car design- Different brands but very similar products. The number of new shows crashing and burning doesn’t augur well for this marketing approach.

To invert an old saying, the very movable object known as the market has met a very resistible force in the form of obsolete concepts of entertainment. In the past, audiences were comparatively poorly educated. Now, the world is literally full of academically and professionally qualified people. The 1950s are over, and apparently nobody’s told the TV marketers. Documentaries are so popular because they provide information to interested people. Is that so incomprehensible?

The conundrum is simple, but it’s also a marketing nightmare:

The new audience is extremely selective, and has a wide range of choices.

Genres like game shows, reality shows and cookery shows are hitting their use-by dates as the net takes over these roles.

High cost, low-rated shows are disastrous for TV networks. The likelihood is that as the audience continues to evolve, TV will need a whole new strategy to create product that fits the net audience.

The documentaries have made their point. This is now a truly demand driven market, and unless that demand is met, the networks are in trouble.