wide audience

Should Niche TV Shows Try to Attract a Wide Audience?

With the rise of streaming, Netflix and other streaming channels have created so much content that it’s pretty much impossible to consume it all. Because there is very little ubiquity in what people watch now, we don’t always have a shared sense of reality on what we find impactful, meaningful, or even true. This is especially the case when it comes to entertainment, especially online entertainment from online streamers that are meant to attract a wide audience.

Netflix changed the game when it came to how we consume television. Because we have so much access to media, we are constantly consuming it and always binge-watching something. And the media we are consuming is different from our parents, our peers, and our friends. Very rarely is there is a show or movie that dominates the discussion for long. Even this years Oscars was a joke — the first such award show to have barely over 10 million live viewers.

BRENTWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

However, because they have a much more limited library of original content, technology companies such as Amazon and Apple, as well as Disney, have went back to the weekly format. The weekly format is a fundamentally different way to consume television versus the Netflix ‘binge it and dump it’ model. Like traditional television, episodes are considered on a weekly basis and not always in the context of the greater season. While shows like HBOS’ Game of Thrones made a point of having a cool set piece at the end of every episode, and creating an ‘event television’ model, these new ‘traditional’ streaming shows are formatted quite differently.

Some, like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, are formatted like a very long movie. Others, like Invincible, closely hew to its source material. And then there are shows like Mythic Quest and The Boys, which both had very niche initial seasons, only to broaden out their appeal to a wide audience with their second outing.

Mythic Quest and The Boys, both in temperament and style, are probably two of the most different shows currently airing. However, they do have one thing in common — they’re both geared toward a more nerdy audience. In season 1, Mythic Quest is very much about the development of video games, before taking a heel turn into a workplace comedy. This heel turn is not bad — it’s just clear that after the show found initial success on streaming, the creators tweaked the series to appeal to the kind of wide audience that enjoyed shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation.

The audience for these shows is, of course, everyone. NBC sitcoms may have some audience targeting, but certainty not to the extent that Netflix does. In their day, both of these shows were the premier workplace sitcoms, and The Office in particular had found new life on Netflix among millennials before being shunted away to Peacock , NBC’s own streaming service. To replace this, Apple TV has fashioned Mythic Quest as the next big thing, moving away from the videogame-centric humor and heart of the first season to talk about broader issues such as workplace relationships, women in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Fortunately, Mythic Quest still has an excellent humorous edge to it, which is really sold by the great cast. But by offering itself up to becoming a full-blown cultural phenomena, the show has moved away from what initially attracted people to it in the first place.

That’s not to say that shows don’t often tweak their formula after the first season, especially sitcoms. Both The Office and Parks and Recreation did this to great success. In particular, Parks and Recreation changed its initial conflict of small town politics and the adversarial relationship between Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson to become broader and attract a wide audience, most of which stuck around through the finale. For that show, it was definitely the right move, as the first season was very stilted and had numerous issues in terms of characters, romance, and more. However, for a show like Mythic Quest, which gained its initial audience through deep and through explorations of the human cost of video game development such as the episode A Dark Quiet Death,” there is something that is lost when the show changes course and tries to appeal to a wide audience.

The Boys is another show that changed trajectory due to its popularity. In the first season, the titular boys: Huey, Billy Butcher, Frenchie and Marvin Milk, are all fighting against the superhero-industrial complex, which is essentially a stand-in for the military-industrial complex. In an early episode, we see Homelander and Queen Maeve, the Superman/Captain America and Wonder Woman of the universe, stop an active shooter in a skyscraper. Instead of trying to take in the shooter alive, as they both easily could have, Homelander brutally executes the shooter before planting evidence to show that he tried to kill the heroes.

After we see Homelander’s ‘shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later’ approach, which is how America treats conflict around the world, we later see him become a tool for corporate war profiteering. During season 1, we see Vought repeatedly try to hire out its heroes for military contracting. In fact, much like the private military contractors of our era, Homelander and Vought manufacture conflict in order to justify their existence. When this is happening, repeated references are made to Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other major defense contractors, only adding to the parallels between Vought’s antics and the military-industrial complex. In the end, Homelander is able to successfully exploit the situation to win Vought a contract with the US government by creating an artificial threat.

Homelander and Queen Maeve also cause a hijacked plane to explode, abandoning the passengers to their death. In the comics, this is even a more shocking development, but the parallels to 9/11 are quite clear, even in the show. These deaths, as well as the way that Homelander and Vought exploit them to win military contracts, is another way that the show subverts the typical pro-military stance of comic book films and explores these issues with a sharp but narrow focus.

Season 2, however, largely moves away from criticism of the military-industrial complex and looks to critique social issues. Introducing Stormfront allows Neo-Nazis to enter the fray (remember, Neo-Nazis in entertainment = bad), which is an easy way to introduce a much more black and white worldview into the show. It also overall removes a lot of the nuance that made the first season so subversive. That’s not to say that season 2 of The Boys was bad by any means, but it’s just to say that the show felt it had to grow beyond that narrow focus in order to appeal to a wide audience.

For me, the issue with taking niche television shows such as Mythic Quest and The Boys and giving them a broader appeal is that they then lack the depth that attracted its initial audience. That’s not to say that these shows can’t evolve into something that are not enjoyable in their own right. But by moving away from becoming a niche show, and moving to broaden its audience, shows like Mythic Quest and The Boys lose sight of its initial audience and become something that helps to promote their respective streaming services (Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video). There’s nothing wrong with that, as these tech giants want to make money, but it does make the shows themselves less enjoyable than their initial outings and makes them feel like more ‘network’ versions of their initial selves.

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