I once had lunch with a former movie star to try to convince him to agree to be in a television show I was producing. The tricky thing was, he didn’t know he was a former movie star. He thought he was a current movie star.
As I walked into the restaurant, the actor’s manager pulled me aside and said, “Just listen to him. He doesn’t make much sense, and he probably hasn’t even read the script, but listen to his thoughts and make him feel heard and he’ll do the show.”
I thought of that moment recently when I was talking to a major political fundraiser who was busy setting up Hollywood events for his client. He was complaining. “What I need is money,” he said to me. “But what I get is advice. Advice from actors and directors and producers about what it takes to run a successful campaign, about messaging, about polls, about the audience, about tactics and strategy, about things they know zero about.”
Just listen to them, I said. They don’t make much sense and they don’t know what they’re talking about, but listen to their thoughts and make them feel heard and they’ll give you the money you need.
Under no circumstances was my friend going to get any money from me, for three big reasons. One, I don’t have any; two, I don’t support his candidate; and three, because I don’t have any, which I know I said already but I’m repeating for emphasis.
But I understood his irritation. People in show business think they know everything about politics and about winning elections. You’ll hear entertainment-industry types braying pompously about how we’re the storytellers, we’re the shamans around the campfire, we connect with people’s daydreams.
“You should listen to us!” celebrities and show-business moguls say to every (mostly liberal) political fundraiser who shuffles through town passing the hat. “We know how to touch the audience.”
That may have been true at one time, but it certainly isn’t true today. Show business today is a lot like that former movie star I tried to woo: delusional, vain, and living in the past.
Thirty-five years ago, a hit TV show got, roughly, a 25 to 30 share. The share number represented the percentage of the night’s total viewership. It was a calculation based on what used to be called HUT, or Households Using Television—a phrase that conjures up families in living rooms fighting over a Cinnabon-sized remote, rather than the way it is now, with each family member staring slack-jawed at his or her phone watching a different show on a different service.
Today, a show with a 30 share would not be considered a hit. It would be considered a smashing, stock-price-inflating, everyone’s-getting-rich show-business phenomenon. It would be considered a magical golden unicorn leading the way to candy-cane land.
You can’t go back, as we all know. Technology and progress move in only one direction, and it’s a direction with a lot of streaming services and no 30 shares. Television, especially, has replaced the big hits of yesterday with a lot of niche offerings, slicing and parsing the available audience into tiny demographic segments. A successful show on broadcast television might get 5 or 6 million total viewers, and if 20 percent of those are between the ages of 18 and 49, it will be considered a major success. To take one example: The Mindy Project, a romantic comedy that premiered on Fox in 2012, ended up on the streaming service Hulu for its final three seasons. It wasn’t a ratings success—it never garnered more than 4 million viewers on average—but it lasted six years and about 125 episodes, thanks in large part to the ever-diminishing definition of a “hit television show.” The Mindy Project was the beneficiary of the soft bigotry of low-ratings expectations.
But there is one segment of show business that still defines success the old-fashioned way—on a massive scale—and it’s the part of the entertainment industry called politics.
About 63 million people voted for Donald Trump. About 66 million voted for Hillary Clinton. That’s a lot of votes for each of the candidates. And here’s what those numbers mean: The combined “audience” for the 2016 presidential election was larger than that for the Super Bowl. It did better than the Olympics, even better than The Big Bang Theory, and The Big Bang Theory was huge.
To put that in box-office terms, in 2016 about 63 million people went to see the Vote for Donald Trump movie on the same weekend that 66 million went to see the I’m With Her movie. A movie ticket costs, on average, about nine bucks, which means both of those movies made over 500 million dollars each on one weekend—something Hollywood has never managed.
Here’s what people in show business forget: Hollywood is easy. Politics is hard. The political masterminds behind those numbers—the campaign managers and media strategists and much-hated political consultants—have to get their audience to take action, mostly, on one specific day and at one specific place. Put it this way: It’s a lot easier to go to the movies, or watch TV, than it is to cast your vote, either in person or by mail.
And Hollywood thinks it should be giving advice to people in politics? It should be the other way around! Election Day is the biggest, splashiest, most lucrative blockbuster ever.
If you spend a few hours flipping around the cable news channels, however—which is not something anyone should do on a full stomach—it’s easy to forget that. The current occupant of the White House is there because roughly 78,000 voters across three states bestirred themselves enough to vote for him. In television-ratings terms, that’s not even enough to count. Those are CNN-on-the-weekends ratings. There are podcasts that put up bigger numbers. Donald Trump, in other words, is a niche product. He’s the political equivalent of The Mindy Project.
For the past 20 years, as the entertainment industry has exploded into a kaleidoscope of channels and services and smartphone apps, the political industry has done the same. Ever since the presidential election of 2000, American politics has been relentlessly focused on niche audiences and targeted appeals. Barack Obama’s smashing 2008 victory—in which he won nearly 70 million votes, or a whopping 53 share—seems like an outlier. By 2012, Obama’s ratings had shrunk, and by 2016, well, we already know how that show went. Right now, in the heat of the 2020 election battle, it’s not inconceivable that two of Nebraska’s six proportionally allotted electoral votes might decide the entire contest, which is about as niche as you can get.
This shouldn’t be surprising. If I ask you to quickly name the five or six most influential political figures in America, it’s a fair bet that most of them will be cable news stars. The most powerful leaders of the Republican Party, one could argue, are Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. And it’s hard to think of a more prominent liberal Democrat than Rachel Maddow. So it’s useful to remember that Tucker Carlson gets about 4.5 million viewers on a good night, which is about as many votes as Gary Johnson received in 2016. And Rachel Maddow gathers about 1.5 million, which puts her in the Jill Stein category.
In other words, none of the major political figures of our era has broad audience appeal. Is that because politics, like show business, is now a small-victory niche-appeal enterprise? Or is it, as some in Hollywood think, because we just don’t go for the big, fat, middle-of-the-road blockbuster anymore? Is the audience—or the voting public—as fractured as we think? Or is it that nobody’s going for the 60 share?
Say this for Maddow, Carlson, and Hannity: You can get very, very rich by appealing to a small segment of the audience. A couple million viewers here and there leads to summer houses and Netjet memberships and fat speaking fees. Delivering to an audience exactly what it wants to hear may be a smart move if you’re a cable news host, but in politics, it’s a high-wire act. You can win an election with 78,000 of the right votes in the right place—some of us learned that the hard way—but that’s an impossible act to plan.
It’s part of the Hollywood business model—including cable news—to aim products at specific niche audiences. But winning the presidency is like hitting a home run. The first thing you have to do is swing for the fence.
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