The Flight of Conchords and “second look” television

Conchords_ii Will HBO’s new show survive infancy?  The fate of The Flight of the Conchords is now unclear. 

The Hollywood Reporter predicts disaster, calling the show,

so cloyingly doofy that [protagonists McKenzie and Clement] are not only tough to root for but difficult to watch for extended periods.

Other critics responded more positively.  Flynn of Entertainment Weekly, called the show a "simple bit of joy," and gave it an A-.  Stanley of the New York Times offered a review that was thoughtful and affectionate. 

Here’s the problem.  This is "second look" television.  It’s pretty difficult to appreciate the show unless you watch episodes a second time.  Much of the show is resident in its subtleties. Miss these and you end up sounding like a Hollywood Reporter reporter. How embarrassing.  (Imagine having  your least observant moment committed to paper and national scrutiny?)

Traditionally, TV has honored a "one look" contract.  In the early days, there were no reruns and no rewinds.  The medium was obliged to keep it, um, medium.  Things were served up with stunning clarity. Writers hated it, directors hated it, actors hated it.  But in the democratic world of TV, no viewer was left behind. 

The "one look" contract said keep the proposition loud and clear.  If need be, repeat the proposition.  When that didn’t work, have characters "explain" things to one another.  And if that didn’t work, summon Dr. Exposition (as Mike Myers calls him), the character who’s sole function was to make things unmistakable clear…and have him make things unmistakable clear. 

We have seen everyone’s media literacy get better.  And many shows are now sufficiently sophisticated and understated to reward a second look, including the work of Aaron Sorkin, shows like Arrested Development, The Wire, and Homicide, and networks like HBO.  A "second look" contract with the viewer now appears to be in the works.  We talk about a "digital divide" to distinguish between younger media consumers who "get" digital, and older ones who don’t.  I wonder whether there is another generational distinction to be made here, one between "one look" viewers and "second look" viewers. 

So it we were doing this as a Harvard Business School case, the debate come down to this: how many viewers have migrated from "one look" to "second look" capability, and how many of those will find pleasure in the rest of Flight.  ("Second look capability" is the necessary condition.  "Pleasure in the show" is the sufficient condition.)   Is this number smaller or larger than the one that HBO needs to sustain the show, or at least a "wait and see" commitment to the show?  Hey, presto, we have cracked the case.

The secondary marketing question is how successfully HBO has identified a "second look" audience and how well have they reached out to this audience? Mostly this is a "word of mouth" undertaking, but we must hope HBO is being maximally strategic here. 

As to the pleasure of The Flight of the Conchords, well, there’s lots of that, but more tomorrow. 

References

Flynn, Gillian.  2007.  Taking ‘Flight.’  Entertainment Weekly.  Issue 941/942.  June 29-July 6, 2007, p. 125. 

Richmond, Ray.  2007.  Flight of the Conchords: Can a couple of sullen, sardonic New Zealand boys find success singing, strumming and spoofing at 10:30 p.m. on HBO?  I’m guessing no.  here.

Stanley, Alessandra.  2007.  The New Zealand Invasion: Digi-Folk Now!  New York Times.  June 15, 2007.  here.

More details

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
HBO
Dakota Pictures, Comedy Arts Studios and HBO
Credits:
Teleplay-creators: James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Executive producers: Stu Smiley, James Bobin, Troy Miller
Co-executive producers: Tracey Baird, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Producers: Anna Dokoza, Christo Morse
Director: James Bobin
Director of photography: Patrick Stewart
Production designer: Christine Stocking
Costume designer: Rahel Afiley
Editor: Casey Brown
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Cast:
Jemaine: Jemaine Clement
Bret: Bret McKenzie
Coco: Sutton Foster
Mel: Kristen Schaal
Murray: Rhys Darby

10 thoughts on “The Flight of Conchords and “second look” television”

  1. I’ve found that the nature of TIVO has seduced me into being a second viewer. The residence of shows like Deadwood and Battlestar Galactica on my hard drive until I wish otherwise, has led me to repeated viewings of episodes.

    Each viewing reveals something missed the previous time(s). These shows are dense in meaning, though. Repeated viewing of Monk or House does not add much.

  2. You nailed it, Grant.

    Second look shows are so much more compelling to the passionate viewer — but as I learned with Arrested Development, new entrants into the show just didn’t ‘get it’. But it seems like with DVD sales and iTunes, you can eek more profit out of these second look shows down the road — or am I wrong?

  3. That’s an interesting perspective. I had put the humor of Flight down to being appreciated only by Antipedians. Or more specifically, Antipeadians who had spent time in America. But when considered in parrellel with Arrested Development I buy the ‘second look’ theory. (Though, I ‘m not sure I believe the distinction between first and second look is generationally based. )
    I think a third marketing issue related to the topic that should be questioned is – what are the metrics considered for success for shows in this (2nd look) category? While the reach is never going to be as broad (given the show is created to not to pander to the slowest person in the room), personal investment in the show (and therefore its messages, endorsements etc) is likely to be deeper. Given the saturation of television (or infact media), you would think a show that packed a harder, more focused punch, would be of value.
    Maybe they’re catering for this in their metrics already (maybe that’s why we were blessed with seasons 2 and 3 of Arrested Development ). I hope so.

  4. The second look idea seems like a useful and insightful approach. This builds well on the theme of complex narrative marketing. In the past I’ve been skeptical of how Grant uses tv programming to make his ideas more accessible. Now I think I have a clearer understanding. Thanks Grant. This post helps me better understand narrative marketing. I’m also appreciating the way that you work with the audience’s shared understanding of pop culture as a vehicle to introduce foreign concepts. I’ve never even seen the show, but I know enough about the context to see what you’re talking about. Clever.

  5. Haven’t second-look shows been on the air for a while? Twin Peaks, for example, may have tried to remind viewers with flashbacks and exposition, but the plotline was complicated enough that these were ineffective. HBO has done this before with Carnivale, which got cancelled after the second season because it was too much work to watch. On the other hand, a lot of the recent criticism directed at Lost is that since the writers are making it up as they go along there isn’t anything to look at a second time.

  6. I wonder whether the audience for these shows isn’t a group that gets 90% of it the first time. It’s hard for me to see why someone who was bored and confused the first time would bother to go back and watch it again. Even for those who like something the first time, how many have the spare time and attention to go back and watch it again?

  7. I agree that a show like Flight of the Conchords probably requires a second look. But there are many elements in this show, and in other second-look shows, that beg that second look. This show is so full of stuff it can be difficult to catch it all. But for me the part that made me take a second look was the way they depict NYC–as a crowded stinky place with shoebox apartments. Their apartment, with two off-the-street mattresses on the floor and found furniture, is the real NYC many of us experience. Probably easier for HBO to do a second-look show than for some of the nets. i saw the pilot for Flight of the Conchords on Yahoo TV and then kept up with it on HBO.

  8. Shows that inspire second looks are shows that offered something to the viewer in the first place that the viewer saw and inspired the viewer to want to explore more. I have watched the episodes more than once and laughed every time. Flight is clever and funny. In my household, three generations enjoy the show and the music. I have seen the live crowds that follow this show and in this cas the digital divide argument does not ring true with what is true. Flight may appeal to males 18-34 but it realizes a much broader fanbase in many countries.

  9. Shows that inspire second looks are shows that offered something to the viewer in the first place that the viewer saw and inspired the viewer to want to explore more. I have watched the episodes more than once and laughed every time. Flight is clever and funny. In my household, three generations enjoy the show and the music. I have seen the live crowds that follow this show and in this cas the digital divide argument does not ring true with what is true. Flight may appeal to males 18-34 but it realizes a much broader fanbase in many countries.

  10. This is one of the few shows I actually enjoy watching, and one of the only shows.The subtle humor of this show is just so great. This is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and it truly is one of the funniest. I loved the first season of Flight of the conchords. It’s a great season.

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