Recently Netflix, an American service that streams movies, resurrected a TV show called Arrested Development. During its original run, Arrested developed a die-hard fan base among college students (and won several Emmy’s), but had a lukewarm reaction from the American viewing public. The show was cancelled, but it’s hard to describe the fierce loyalty a small cadre of viewers have. I knew friends in college that would quote lines to each other, and watch the show religiously. When my cousin who lives in the Middle East heard there were new episodes coming out, but they would be unavailable in her country, she practically begged me to find a way to get her the episodes. I read on Facebook of friends who viewed all 15 episodes of the new season at once.
The show was not for everyone. If I were to compare the style to a British sitcom, it would be The Office, but Arrested relies more on word play, double entendre, interweaving plots, references to politics, and television culture. However somehow years after its cancellation, despite the show’s limited appeal, a company thought they could make a profit by creating new episodes.
Why? And how does this pertain to Economics? From the beginning of television, shows like I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Friends were built around the median television viewer in the United States. There were a small number of stations, and a limited amount of air time, so a show had to have mass appeal. Television execs needed to make a lot of people like a show instead of a few people love a show. However, with a change in technology to accommodate internet video, companies like Netflix can reach out to viewers that have very niche viewing preferences. The financial incentive is now there to produce for more niche audiences. One author, Chris Anderson, has dubbed this phenomenon the long tail.
In the visual, the green area of the graph will appeal to a lot of people. It is the Top 40’s tracks, it is the Top TV shows. In the yellow area, the tail, each item is consumed less, preferred by fewer people, even though those people might have an extremely strong preference for that service or product. It is the television show you love but your friends have never heard of, it is Ladysmith Black Mambazo that a local music store couldn’t stock, but is still great.
What does this mean? It is now viable to create and consume media more of tailored to each of our preferences. That development is more liberating than an arrested development.
Jay is studying the Diploma for Graduates in Economics by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. He lives in Florida, USA.