NEW GEOGRAPHY--America’s seemingly unceasing culture wars are not good for business, particularly for a region like Southern California. As we see Hollywood movie stars, professional athletes and the mainstream media types line up along uniform ideological lines, a substantial portion of the American ticket and TV watching population are turning them off, sometimes taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the bottom line.
This payback being dealt out to urbane culture-meisters by the “deplorables” are evidenced by historically poor ratings for such hyper-politicized events as the Oscars last year as well as this year’s Emmys. The current controversy surrounds the NFL player protests, which are lowering already weak ratings, down 10 percent since the national anthem protests, as well as plunging movie ticket sales. The oddly political sports network ESPN has seen declines close to catastrophic, although how much their often strident “resistance” turns off viewers is widely debated.
Jettisoning your audience
Historically, the genius of American entertainment, particularly Hollywood, lay in the appeal to the everyman. American movie stars, whatever their background, were Anglicized and could, at very least, “pass” for northern Europeans. In recent decades, the definition of “everymen” thankfully expanded, albeit imperfectly, to African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims and gays.
In the process, Hollywood and sports managed to expand their market by appealing to an ever more diverse consumer base both here and abroad. But with the rampant politicization of culture, sports and information, the notion of a common cultural market has all but disappeared.
Among those in control of mainstream media culture — newspapers, magazines, movie studios and television networks — attention is focused on an affluent, progressive audience concentrated in urban centers. The ignored, or disdained, are not just the roughly 46 percent of voters who voted for Donald Trump, but a wider section of middle-class America.
From a mass to a niche industry
Sandy Climan, a widely respected Los Angeles entertainment industry figure and investor, suggests that factors like globalization and technology also have played a major role in this transformation. “You can’t be all things to all people anymore,” he suggests. Today’s era will be dominated instead by the need for “the highest engagement niche entertainment.”
As Climan notes, technology, the rise of cord cutting and the availability of movies online, allows for unprecedented opportunities for niche marketing. Large cultural companies see their future not so much as appealing to the mass audience, but to a large, often wealthy, audience that shares their increasingly homogeneous world views. The rise of Trump has been a huge boon to “resistance” media like the New York Times, MSNBC, late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live, all thriving from those millions who can’t get enough anti-Trump.
The big open question is who will capture the 40 to 50 percent of America that the mainstream media finds “deplorable.” This alternative audience is not made up entirely of repulsive alt-right white nationalists and is clearly underserved in our mainstream media. They may not be generally as erudite as readers of the New Yorker or the New York Times, and perhaps less attractive to the luxury advertisers who sustain those publications, but they are not necessarily illiterate dopes. In fact, the average Trump voter appears to have been wealthier, and even better educated, than those who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Today only a small part of big media, notably talk radio, as well as Fox News and other outlets of the Murdoch empire, have targeted this audience. In addition, the conservative mainstream has spawned such alternative voices as Pajamas Media, Breitbart, The Federalist, the Daily Caller and a host of other small web-oriented publications. The growth of these outlets reflects how many Americans no longer trust the established media as being either objective or sharing their values.
Who wins and who loses?
The likely winners in the new media landscape will be those who can carve out a strong niche capable of supporting advertising or gaining sufficient eyeballs. Sadly, this tends to weaken any sense of national unity. Rather than a moderately liberal mass media that at least pretends to respect differing opinions, we may see a cultural landscape that more resembles competing armies or football teams, and forget the nuances.
It’s not pretty. We see conflicting outrage from both the unhinged man in the White House and his claque, and an endless stream of drivel from almost embarrassingly ignorant celebrities, including that intellectual icon of our age, Kim Kardashian. The real loser is our democracy, the quality of information and largely unrepresented, less politicized Americans, often stuck between two sets of hardened partisans.
In such an environment, our national culture has become increasingly difficult to define. But the reduction to a niche strategy could pose a particular threat to the information and entertainment sectors so prominent here in Southern California. Our region has thrived by spinning popular tales and designing the lifestyle that appealed to a mass national and global audience. But as Hollywood, the world of design, sports, media and theater embrace an increasingly brazen partisan role, they may find much of their market bolting for the exits, and taking with them a good chunk of their future earnings.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. This column was posted most recently at New Geography.)