Sunday, December 26, 2010

How to Create a Cultural Phenomenon

Of the top 20 most watched TV shows in fall 2010, 18 were NFL games. In a media climate where all TV ratings are in perpetual decline, the NFL bucks the trend. In fact, this is shaping up to be the most watched NFL season in history--which is amazing when you realize that there are more Sunday viewers now than there was back when there were only three channels (four if you count PBS) and no Internet.

Americans just love football, right? One problem--college football ratings are down this year. I'm guessing that people who choose to watch the NFL over college are not trying to make a statement that they prefer a game where prone, untouched players have the right to get up. The rules and plays are obviously similar, and if anything, in recent years college games have come to more closely resemble the style of play one sees on Sundays. Granted the overall athleticism of college players don't equate to the pros, but A) This actually allows for more big plays at the college level, and an arguably more fun, wide-open contest and B) The same could be said about basketball, where college seems to enjoy greater popularity (The NCAA Tourney has more than double the ratings of the NBA Finals).

So what's the difference? Awhile back I came up with a sweeping theory about popular appeal, but I'm now going to posit an additional theory to sit alongside that one. Popular phenomena must have the right combination of the following three elements:

1) Tribalism: There must be an "us" vs. "them" component. This obviously works well for niche phenomena (such as indie rock, for example). A subcultural population can latch on to the notion that they possess something esoteric that empowers them to experience life in a way that is superior to the unenlightened. Tribalism gets tricky when you are talking about something with a strong mainstream appeal, but it is usually there. Even during Beatlemania young moptop fans could fancy that they were appreciating their heroes in the face of opposition from the older folks that just didn't "get it." The same probably goes for the Twilight generation, but Stephanie Meyer has succeeded in giving her base a further tribal component by fostering "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob." And of course, sports has the best of both worlds. The NFL as a brand can have a strong mainstream presence, while giving its followers the opportunity to splinter into separate (and relatively equal) tribes. Of course, college sports offer the same thing (to an even greater degree given that one can quite literally become a member of a tribe through matriculation), so this component doesn't account for the NFL's superior popularity.

2) Narrative Significance: Allow me to deviate from sports for a minute to discuss one of other great passions--comic books. It is a general rule of comic book sales that the first issue sales of a given title will always be higher than the second issue, and that the longer the title goes, the more the sales will drop. However, there is almost always a sales spike when a story comes along which is hyped as one that will be changing a character's status quo (a superhero dies, gets a new costume, acquires or loses powers, enters or ends a romantic relationship, joins or quits a superhero team, etc...). Another way to get a sales spike is through the use of a "tie-in"-- a multi-part story that spans several titles in a company's line of comics. When these things happen, fans then often take to the Internet and bemoan their favorite character's new direction or complain that they have to buy all kinds of comics they don't want in order to understand a story. They long for the good old days when comic stories were "done in one" where you could get a decent story with a beginning, middle, and end, and one that doesn't feel the need to deal in world-shaking ramifications. But the problem with such complaints is that what fans say they want and what they demonstrably want are different things. When it is perceived that a story "matters," sales go up.

In recent years, producers of television shows have tapped into this trend. Many of the popular television shows (in ratings, buzz, and DVD sales) are serials, shows where one episode builds on another, where you miss out if you miss a week. And although all sports benefit from having games "matter" in terms of play-off races, the NFL undeniably has the most meaningful regular season. "Every game matters" was an ESPN tag line for college basketball promos a few years ago (and indeed this may partly explain the appeal of college hoops over the NBA), but it is more true for pro football.

I've heard it argued that the college football season is more meaningful than the NFL because usually one loss, and certainly two, dooms a team's championship hopes. So every game has greater stakes. But this is true only for undefeated teams. Once a team suffers losses, their games take on much less significance. And since more NFL teams are "in the hunt" late in the season, there are a greater number of meaningful games.

In theory, sports fans should be able to enjoy a good game devoid of context. But like comic book fans, the context and the perceived significance of the game matters.

3) Narrative closure: Postmodern philosophers can talk about the virtues of ambiguity all they want, but give an audience an ambiguous ending (e.g. The Sopranos) and get ready for a backlash. People want twists, turns, and surprises throughout a narrative, but at the end, they want resolution.

And they don't want stories that drag on too long. This is why, just as comic book titles drop in sales, there will always be a drop-off in a TV series' television ratings. Lost got more hype as it went along, but less people tuned in to watch it (until the final few episodes of course, when principle #2 came into play). And this is why the Rolling Stones can sell out any venue they play, but nobody cares about their studio albums anymore. So perhaps one reason the NFL is beating television shows in ratings is because it never overstays its welcome--the season comes to an end and then the baggage is tossed overboard and a new narrative begins a new cycle.

College football benefits from this cyclical phenomenon, but it strikes out in providing adequate closure. Given the lack of a play-off system and the frequent irresolution in declaring a champion, fans often feel unsatisfied. And while some argue that debate and controversy is great for a sport, TV ratings show that controversy alone doesn't drive interest. The NFL has plenty of debate and controversy, too, but the assurance that fans have that their investment will be rewarded with closure, and that their weekly investment is meaningful, makes them tune in (and go to games, and buy merchandise, and bet on games, and play in fantasy leagues). Add in a little tribalism and it is hardly surprising that NFL Football is the phenomenon that it is.


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