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The Oscars Struggle as the Audience Moves to Niche Markets

Patrick Goldstein at the LA Times agrees with an assertion that I’ve been making for the past year.  The media business has become the ultimate niche market, and nowhere is it more evident that in this year’s Oscar race.  I’m writing this just 3 hours before the Oscar telecast begins, and we’ll see if the ratings are as low as many of us are predicting.  In an earlier blog I wrote that this is the year of the “Academy nominated films no one has seen.”  Yes, most of the films are financially in the black, but they are far from the much hyped “mainstream American” acceptance we’ve been hearing about.

This is probably the single biggest year where the nominated films are outside the mainstream.  Ed Rampell at the Daily News would agree.  But of course, Goldstein disagrees.  He thinks the predictions of commentators like Michael Medved – that the industry has lost it’s bearings on the values and priorities of middle America – are wrong.  But when you look at the geographic map of ticket sales for films like “Brokeback Mountain,” the vast audience is still in the Northeast and the far West.  In other words, without New York and LA, films like Brokeback would be far from successful.

But the move to the niche comes from other areas as well.  As Goldstein states in the Times, mass events are on the wane.  From the World Series, to the NBA playoffs, the Grammy Awards, and even the Winter Olympics, audiences are dropping in droves.  Yes, there will still be blockbuster movies, hit TV series, and best selling CDs for some time to come, but the audience has started migrating in big ways to niche markets – podcasts, blogs, specialty TV programs, narrow low budget films, and more.

Of course, Goldstein continues to pitch for the old media model, and tries his best to lament that the media world is moving from elegance and professionalism, to the amateurish ignorance of particular markets.  He compares it to “top down” culture which features sophistication and subtlety (as in major studio and network product), versus “bottom up” culture, featuring in his mind, low budget projects, banal dreams, and crass yearning for stardom.

Sure it’s an easy comparison, when “American Idol” beats the Grammy Awards in the ratings.   But the fact is, niche entertainment markets are in their infancy, and have already proven to be a fascinating source of information.  Remember, it was bloggers that were instrumental in bringing down Dan Rather, and advertising agencies are even adapting no-budget independent short films into commercial campaigns, as in “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.”

I say – let the people speak.  Yes, we’ll lose some art in the process, but we’ll also find the next Francis Ford Coppola in a high school kid editing on Final Cut Pro in his garage.  What we need to learn from this year’s Oscars is that Hollywood will continue to make films for itself, arrogantly thinking it’s still reaching mainstream America.  But perhaps most important, if this year’s ratings for the Oscar broadcast drop significantly, maybe the entertainment industry will finally get the message that the values of the “fly over” states actually matter – if no where else than the studio’s bank accounts.

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