2017:  Bring on the Old

2017 NAB Show Editorial Submission
by Allison O’Keefe Wright, Executive Vice President, Open Mind Strategy

At Open Mind Strategy we have the great pleasure of working with media brands like ESPN, MTV, Food Network, Science Channel, MSNBC, Travel Channel, Animal Planet and IFC (to only name a few recent partners), and in the course of our investigations into evolving viewing behaviors, needs and expectations we see clear patterns emerging that help us put our finger on trends we expect will shape content consumption in the year (and years) to come.

Yesterday as Today’s Antidote

At the current time, it’s no secret that many people are feeling dragged down by reality.  Said simply, today is not the best of times.  The abundance of unavoidable negativity in 24/7 news media is pushing viewers to their limit. The world is rife with controversies and alternative points of view, pitting side against side.  Throughout time, television has often played a role in helping people to escape less than pleasant realities, and it continues to play that role for many, but one interesting trend that we are seeing grow as people strive to avoid the darkness of the “real” today, is a conscious escape into yesterday.

The TV and movie landscape has been bombarded with “what’s old is new again” content for years.  However, there are deeper ways that “nostalgia” is grabbing the interests of TV viewers today, that will likely continue to grow significantly in the near future.  Viewers are using the scripted past as an antidote to the present.

New programs set in older, though not even that distant, times are increasingly appealing for several reasons.  First, they offer a welcome reprieve from today’s trials, tribulations, politics and institutions.  Second, they allow us to appreciate and embrace characters on the “wrong side” of certain issues, because they get a pass for “not knowing better, then”.  Third, they provide a platform for stories that break from the norm, without breaking today’s mores.

Characters from the past can make mistakes and hold opinions that you “can’t” hold today.  People are allowed to be unsure which side to take on issues that modern times insist are “black and white”. You can still be the hero without having it all figured out. Story lines can dig into sensitive topics in an exploratory way, without the viewer being forced to question, or get angry with, the protagonist if and when they pick the “wrong side” or if they are simply unsure which way to go.

Stranger ThingsThis Is Us, The Americans, Red Oaks, Westworld — the past is showing its face in varied and increasingly intriguing ways.  Shows like these allow a momentary escape from 2017 to a different, in some cases very familiar, comfortable, and simpler time.  These stories set in the past allow us to take a new look at what’s happening around us by seeing issues through more naïve, or at least less experienced, eyes.  Additionally, the past can be a fun backdrop to even serious or edgy content — the songs and clothes of the 80s give levity even to intense subject matter.  While settings most often complement and inform the story, they can also be a whole separate reason to watch — a window into one’s parent’s youth or a reflection back to one’s own.

Beta Boys No More

 As an extension of this trend toward nostalgic settings, young consumers – particularly young male consumers – are increasingly clamoring for content that revives a concept lost when Millennials were coming of age – males in the role of strong characters. 

Millennials were the “Alpha Girl Generation.” As they were coming of age, society held young girls up as leaders – trying to overcome the oppression of previous generations – and as a result girls in the Millennial generation began to out-guy the guys in confidence, drive and academic achievement. In media, Millennial female heroes like Juno, Hannah Montana, Rachel Berry and Katniss Everdeen told girls to take charge, to take over.  Meanwhile, male heroes, like the Jackass crew, told guys it was cooler not to try — getting rich riding your skateboard into stuff, and hopefully getting famous pulling pranks, was the better route.

A recent Pew study showed that 2 in 5 18- to 31-year-old men and 1 in 5 25- to 34-year-old men still live in their parents’ homes, compared with only 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 women in these age groups.  Guess who isn’t okay with this?  Gen Z guys.  This next generation of young males believe that girls are equal to them — they respect strong females and envision a future where they’ll find a female partner who will contribute equally to their joint success.  Still, as Gen Z males strive to redefine masculinity, not in a male chauvinist way, but in a “guys are equal” kind of way, they are hungry for more young male characters that demonstrate that it’s okay for guys to be strong and smart, just like the girls.  They want intelligent male role models who have it together AND have their man card. Sometimes it is easier to find these characters in content set in the past – before Millennial girls pushed boys into “beta” position – but whether set today or in the past, there is a hunger for strong, inspiring male protagonists and we expect that content that delivers these role models will connect.

Real Heroes Needed — Step Aside, Anti-Hero

In addition to looking for male characters that can rekindle some faith in that gender, the TV landscape is coming off the heyday of the anti-hero.  Approximately ten years ago, viewers found themselves sick of overly optimistic and sunny content that felt counter to the reality around them.  They began to crave stories where the underdog, even if he/she was in many ways “the bad guy” would win the day.  Breaking Bad’s Walter White was at the center of this trend, but scores of other shows satiated the same need: True Blood, Dexter, Walking Dead, House of Cards, Game of Thrones to name only a few.  After countless very successful anti-hero plays, the pendulum is beginning to swing again.

As mentioned in the trend for nostalgia, we are are living in a world that is still going through particularly hard times, but the problem is that too many anti-heros are now showing up in reality as well.  Too many “bad guys” are winning the day.  As such, viewers are expressing a growing desire for content that highlights the possibility of good actually managing to overcome.  Stories of inspiration and hope that help us believe that there are still people in the world who care and who are looking out for others, are increasingly needed.

The Death of Surfing – Guided Search and Guaranteed Entertainment

On the more tactical side of evolving media trends, as life becomes more and more dependent on the internet and on demand options, the methods by which viewers discover the new content to meet their evolving interests is also changing. “Channel surfing” and trolling the program guide to stumble upon impromptu gold is becoming outdated – this doesn’t get them what they want fast enough.  Efficient topic and style-driven guided search is not
only gaining popularity, it is becoming the expectation, particularly among younger adults.  Many younger TV viewers tell us that frustrated by the “struggle” of navigating traditional TV, more and more they are opting to start their search at Network’s OnDemand channels, rather than at the channel itself or the program guide, in the hopes of accessing their desired content quicker.

Guided search and custom “for you” content offered by streaming platforms like Netflix, guarantee that viewers will find something enjoyable to watch, offering a more reliable return on the time spent searching. In 2017, viewers want recommendations delivered to them, and in lieu of this, at the very least they want show titles, images and info summaries that clearly and provocatively grab their attention and offer clues that they are “right for them”.

And the competition in clarifying that you are “for them” is increasingly steep, as it’s not just new titles you’re competing with. Instead, with expectations higher than ever, even when they are just in need of some lighthearted background noise, viewers are less willing to turn to a new show to serve as the backdrop to multi-tasking (a need once filled by go-to unscripted series) and instead they are increasingly turning to old scripted favorites instead. Busy lives mean consumers want to make the most of their TV time, and they want guaranteed enjoyment, rather than wasting time surfing and taking a risk on a new show or whatever is available “live”. When they need a trusted escape and a few guaranteed laughs, streaming favorite episodes of Friends, Scrubs or Freaks and Geeks is often the preferred short-cut.  You don’t need to really pay attention because you’ve already seen it, but you can trust that it will serve as familiar and friendly background noise and have you chuckling the stress of the day away.

At the moment, in many ways what’s new is old…and you better make it easy to find it.


About the Author: Allison O’Keefe Wright

As Executive Vice President, Managing Director, Research and Strategy at Open Mind Strategy, Allison consults major brands on positioning, product development and marketing. Allison has received global recognition for her expertise in the millennial market.  She authored the book D_Code 5, an investigation of leading edge youth culture around the globe, and ran research and planning divisions at both MTV and EMI (Capitol) Music, where young consumers, passion and fandom were focal points of many research endeavors.  She is now increasing her focus on the next wave of youth consumers, Gen Z, and has worked with brands like MTV, iHeart and ESPN in cultivating a deeper understanding of this generation. Allison has a unique ability to humanize data, and believes a sense of humor is often the key ingredient to draw truth from consumers and inspire clients and partners to delight in new insight and understanding.


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