Chunky culture: the next new thing?

Kyra_sedgwick Michael Keaton will do a TV series called The Company about the CIA.

James Woods will do a show this fall called Shark about a prosecuting attorney.

Kyra Sedwick triumphed in The Closer, the highest ranking show on cable.

Holly Hunter is in negotiations to do a drama called Grace about an Oklahoma City detective.

What do these actors have in common?  They can carry TV and Hollywood projects but they’d rather steal them. 

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998) was a great picture and Keaton managed to steal it with 2 minutes of screen time.  "Ray Nicolette" is a deeply stupid FBI agent who likes to wear the FBI t-shirts they sell in tourist kiosks.  He is taunted by his girl friend’s father (Dennis Farina),

"Hey, Ray, when you’re working undercover do you ever wear a t-shirt that reads "undercover"?" 

Ray replies with a stare that is equidistant between complete incomprehension and complete hostility.   We the audience just can’t tell.  It’s the best bit of acting in a film filled with good acting. I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney have never been better than in Out of Sight.  Keaton appears almost as if remind us that, even at their best, they are film stars, not actors.

James Woods, as Dr. Harvey Mandrake, came precious close to stealing Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999) with a bit part about a doctor compromised by the demands of professional football. 

Kyra Sedgwick stole cable with a show that debuted in the summer time. (!)

And my favorite example is Holly Hunter who steals the whole of Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000) with about 30 seconds on one quarter of the screen. 

Funny, then, that all of them should have been be tapped for television. 

At first glance, it looks like a good trade.  They bring talent and celebrity to a cable proposition that is now robust enough to pay them decently and risk taking enough to give them room to do their thing dramatically. 

But I wonder whether this does not also suggest a trend in contemporary culture and commerce.  What we are looking at might be a shift from the stars to actors, from big propositions (beauty + charisma with just enough talent) to something more intense (talent with a capital T and whatever else the actor happens to bring along for the ride).  I think George Clooney is a good case in point here.  He has just enough talent to sustain his career as handsome George.  Holly Hunter is a formidable talent who happens to be good looking.  And it wouldn’t much matter if she weren’t.  (Every show stealer is a great actor.  That’s how they do it.)

You could call this long tail casting, but only if you wanted to obscure what is going on.  Cable is eating Network’s lunch precisely because it can go intensive (narrow but deep) while the Network continues to struggle to be extensive (wide but shallow).  And if that’s all that happened, we are indeed looking at a long tail proposition.

But this is something different.  This is talent finding a new way in, and it reverses an age old pattern.  In the old days, stars would come up big and, if they were smart about it, they would spend their rest of their careers trading their celebrity for credibility, taking more difficult roles in smaller productions.  We will have to watch Kyra Sedgwick’s career with interest.  She was never mass, but her part in The Closer suggests the possibility that she might someday become so.

By this reckoning, the mass market is not dead.  It is merely more capacious.  Some of its structural properties have changed, to be sure.  Those who want a chunk of this market can’t get it merely by going wide, by being witless, agreeable and non threatening.  This fragmented mass market demands that people bring talent, take risks and proceed intensively.  Only thus can they hope to break in.  But this is not about tiny markets connected to small producers (mostly) by electronically enabled channels. 

It is as if mass culture became a larger space, and as if got larger, the traditional model of stardom and production was forced now to change.  In fact, as I was reading the obits for Aaron Spelling, I couldn’t help wondering whether the producer of shows like Charlie’s Angels would flourish in the new world of television.  I think we can take for granted that The Closer would have offended Spelling’s vaunted instincts in just about every way.  But we would be wrong, we would be naive, to suppose that this is the beginning of a long tail market.  There is something installed in our culture between the old mass media and the new long tail "youtubes" of the world.  TV calls it cable.  We call it chunky. 

If this is true, it’s good news for TV.  The future is not youtube.com. It’s good news for advertising.  The future is consumer created content and word-of-mouth.  And it is, whew, good news for anthropology.  The future is not a perfect fragmentation of consumer taste and preference. 

This world will fill with evolutionary options.  Out of this long tail noise will come winners who take, well, if not "all," then great big chucks of the marketing place.  The chief difference is that they will have to start small, risk big and leverage real talent.  But some of them, just a few of them, will prove to be show stealers.  To win in this marketplace and culture, that’s what it will take.  Not Jessica Simpson but Kyra Sedgwick.  Not Heather Graham but Holly Hunter.  Not Rebecca Romajin (Pepper Dennis), but oh, I don’t know, someone who can really act. 

Call this the rise of a chunky culture, no longer mass, not yet, and not ever, long tail.  The future of contemporary culture and contemporary culture?  It belongs to the show stealers.  I am not sure Nietzsche ever got that 3 picture deal from Hollywood he deserved, but it was he, I think, who anticipate the new industry when he said, "good poets don’t borrow, they steal." 

When Michael Keaton, James Woods, Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter come to the "waste land" of television, we are looking at the era of the scene stealer, not the arrival of a long tail market.  Cable is not going to fragment still further.  It is beginning to chunk.  It is expanding enough to attract big talent, and with these steal stealers in place it will expand even more. 

There are plenty more things to say about chucky culture and commerce.  But I will close with just three.  Chunky culture is big enough to fund real talent.  (Where are the incentives in long tail markets?)  Chunky culture is big enough to encourage real risk.  (Where are the incentives in long tail markets?)   Chunky culture is big enough to have real  gravitational effects on contemporary culture.  (Long tail markets are a recreation of the tower of babel.)  Things like Arrested Development, this was long tail.  It grew big enough to max out and, God willing, it will flourish in a more narrow medium. 

But the other plays on Cable, these are now big enough to get bigger, and as they do we move from long tail to chucky. 

References

Andreeva, Nellie.  2006.  Hunter finds good "Grace" in TNT pilot.  Hollywood Reporter East. July 10, 2006, p. 1.

Nordyke, Kimberley.  2006.  Keaton, Turner make for Good Company.  Hollywood Report East. July 10, 2006, p. 5. 

5 thoughts on “Chunky culture: the next new thing?”

  1. Ooh, I really enjoyed this post as I am a performer and writer…and you’ve captured something here, I like the term chunky. There are a couple other things, you’ve sort of noted that the consumer is controlling shows, true. We are enjoying smart tv. Plus, actors want to act. And what a way to constantly exercise than by a weekly tv show! And…it used to be that for a while some actors started out in tv. there was an idea, start in soap opera(Demi Moore, Kathleen Turner) “advance” to movies. Not any more. Tv is awesome. And…there is another reward…the strange concept of being a peoples actor, as well as an actors actor. popularity and mass audience with a huge tv show only competes with blockbuster movies for the sense of working for the people by the people. I am really looking forward to following these new tv shows.(already a bog fan of The Closer) Now getting a tv show is as fancy a cache as a blockbuster movie or a Cronenberg film.

  2. Hi Grant,
    Nice post on the, ahem, twilight zone between mass culture and niche culture. It’s interesting and perhaps revelatory that at the same time that the quasi-evolutionary narrative of an actor’s career (soaps –> TV –> movies) has become scrambled so has the quasi-evolutionary narrative of how the average person uses the internet. Back in the day, it was “AOL–> another ISP without the walled garden –> broadband.” Now AOL is getting out of that business and the trajectory is up for grabs. Do you see the similarity?
    Best,
    Brad

  3. One key point is that the very difficulty of assembling large audiences means that those who can get at least a chunk will get a larger premium from advertisers of “mass” products (e.g. GEICO). In a fragmented world, aggolomeration earns a higher price per unit (though a smaller total amount because of smaller audience size) than it used to.

  4. It wasn’t Nietzche who coined that much quoted (and misquoted) saying, it was TS Eliot:

    “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”

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