The Zombie Apocalypse is like the Classical Music Crisis

I just watched the third episode of SyFy’s Z Nation, the latest Zombie Apocalypse series to follow in the wake of the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead. After the failed attempt by to bring Zombieland (a kind of rebooting of the movie of the same name) to the small screen, and the recent cancellation, after just two seasons, of BBC’s In The Flesh, you’d think the current Zombie craze is in decline.

"In The Flesh" is a Zombie TV show about rehabilitated zombies who get treatments for PDS (Partially Dead Syndrome).
“In The Flesh” is a Zombie TV show about rehabilitated zombies who get treatments for PDS (Partially Dead Syndrome).

But with the proliferation of Zombie movies (and interesting hybrids) and a number of other TV series which focus on the return of the dead (the Evil Dead reboot notwithstanding) and the proliferation of Zombie Walks (the Louisville Zombie Walk just happened a few weeks ago) around the world, you’d think Zombies are HUGE!

Obviously, The Walking Dead is popular: ranked fourth overall (just behind “Big Bang Theory,” “NCIS,” and “Sunday Night Football” at 18.3 million) of all 2013-2014 television series. In the 18-49 demographic, it took the lead over everything else (12.2 million). Zombies are relatively popular nowadays. Popular enough that there’s an upcoming reality series about the making of a Zombie Movie.

Classical Music is Undead

Step in (or maybe shamble in?) Classical Music.


After the Slate piece by Mark Vanhoenacker appeared earlier this year declaring the death of Classical Music (again), a number of folks declared that Classical Music was actually Undead (see here, and here, and here). Not that this is anything new in Classical Music. Ron Spigelman posted about the Naxos album, “Music for the Zombie Apocalypse,” which was released a few years ago.


And the really big debate is what kind of undead Classical Music is (note than I wrote a post about the Vampire shows and audience fragmentation recently):

Given this meme that’s been floating around for a while, this doesn’t seem to be far off from Hilary’s conclusion.


How popular is The Walking Dead, anyway?


In the 18-49 demo, AMC’s The Walking Dead reigns supreme, beating out the biggest hit, Big Bang Theory. TV, as well as the Big Screen Movies, Sports, and Pop Music are often touted as “current culture” in contrast to Classical Music, which is “old” or “out-of-date” culture. Greg Sandow says:

“[w]e’ll have to make classical music a lot smarter than it seems right now, especially to sharp, smart, critical people immersed in current life, who devour the deep cultural probing in TV series like Mad Men or The Wire”

Let’s set aside the fact that The Wire ended some years ago and that Mad Men doesn’t event rank in the top 50 shows from the 2013-2014 season (in fact, it’s been on the decline for some time and will air its last season in 2014-2015).

Let’s also set aside what’s problematic about using the 18-49 demographic as a metric for popularity and that time-shifting means far more people today watch at their convenience rather than at broadcast time.

Let’s look at where some of these top shows rank, as compared to where top shows ranked in, say, 1994-1995 where a recent Slate piece compares and contrasts the two. That is a nice counterpoint to my post about the precipitous decline in TV viewership from earlier this year. This quote is as good a summary of the slate piece as any:

The business model the networks had made billions from over the decades was starting to show serious signs of stress, and not just from within: 1994 was the year that DirecTV debuted; that FX, IFC, HGTV, and other still thriving cable networks launched; and that Netscape Navigator, Amazon, and Yahoo! all arrived. But at the moment this landmark season began, the broadcast networks were still very much near the top of their game, still behemoths. Consider: The George Wendt Show, a terrible sitcom starring the former Cheers regular, was canceled after just six episodes in the spring of 1995 because its average audience of 10.4 million viewers was deemed to be disastrous. Last season, the NBC smash The Blacklist pulled in an average of 10.8 million viewers before its DVR audience was tallied, and NBC heralded the show as its biggest first-year drama hit since … ER.

While it’s no shocker that broadcast TV ratings aren’t what they used to be, the stark decline of the Big Four’s monopoly on audiences becomes shockingly clear when you juxtapose ratings from the 1994-95 season with those of today. To understand the depth of the drop-off, check out the graphic below: It lists the Nielsen rankings for every regularly scheduled scripted series that aired during the 1994-95 season as measured in adults 18-49 ratings, only with a few big broadcast shows from the 2013-14 season mixed in with the 20-year-old data. Needless to say, the comparisons aren’t pretty. The Big Bang Theory, last season’s No. 1 scripted show in the key demo, would have ranked No. 57 in 1994-95, just above Sister, Sister. (And check out where Emmy darling and ratings-driver Modern Family would have fallen: 90th place, between M.A.N.T.I.S. and Mommies. And even more tellingly, Law & Order: SVU would rank 103rd, betweeen UPN launch fodder Platypus Man and Pigsty.)

Big Bang Theory, the current top TV show would rank 57 in 1994-1995. The Walking Dead would have ranked 6th after NBC’s Friends and ahead of NBC’s Madman of the People. Note that the Slate piece talks about its methodology.

Our chart uses adults 18-49 ratings rather than total viewers for a couple of reasons. First, networks and advertisers were rapidly embracing the 18-to-49 demo as the key measure of success by 1995; even CBS, ever the old folks’ network, told the press in March 1995 that it was planning to make over its struggling lineup with shows targeted to the young (ergo Central Park West). And since networks today still stress adults under 50, it makes sense to compare apples to apples.

Note also that the Neilsen works on a point rating system based on the percentage of television set equipped households (now taking into account internet content). As of 2013 there were 115.6 million television households in the United States and Neilsen has noted that the growth in digital media is even higher in older demographics.

In the first season (1950-1951) that Neilsen started tracking Television viewing, the Texaco Star Theater was the highest rated TV show at 61.6.  The Highest rated show in the history of Neilsen ratings was I Love Lucy which had a 67.3 rating in the 1952-1953. Constrast this to Seinfeld, the 1994-1995 winner, at a 20.6 rating.

This piece by Alyssa Rosenberg, takes as its starting point the 42 million people who tuned in to watch the last hour of the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev comparing it to the 1993 figure of 42.4 who tuned into the series finale of Cheers. She then gives us some perspective on what current shows viewership are like compared to the past.

But the juxtaposition of those figures from twenty years apart serves to illustrate a useful point: national tragedies, particularly crime stories, are perhaps the last form of television that has a truly mass audience.

The extent to which the American television audience has fragmented is extraordinary, and not entirely a bad thing, driven as it has been by dramatic increases in the number of offerings available to viewers, and a dramatic increase in their quality. In the 1952-1953 second season of I Love Lucy, for example, the show averaged a 67.3 rating, meaning 67.3 percent of American television households were tuned into the show during its time slot. It’s hard to come up with a directly comparable number for Friday night’s news coverage because ratings are done by show rather than in the aggregate, but if 42 million households tuned in to watch the manhunt, that would represent 36.8 percent of America’s 114.2 million television households. Similarly, n Cheers’ fifth season, its highest-rated, the show, which aired from 1986-1987, pulled in an average rating of 27.2, which averaged out to 23.77 million viewers per episode. Friends pulled in an average of 24.50 million viewers per episode in its eighth season, which aired in 2001-2002. But the last year a show that won the Nielsen ratings had a rating of above 20 was 1997-1998, when Seinfeld pulled in a 21.7 rating. In 2011-2012, NBC Sunday Night Football pulled in the crown with a mere 12.9 rating.

Dropping viewership per show or series across the board also accompanies the rise of series and shows on smaller or newer networks. Basically, audiences are fragmenting because the market is fragmenting, so while we might have a growth in Television Households, the viewership per series or show is dropping because there’s the huge growth of content via Cable, Satellite TV, and now digital media. This obviously means that there will be a drop in revenue for traditional broadcast media. This is what I’ve been calling a Post-Pop phenomenon and is happening in all forms of Popular Entertainment.

If this sounds similar to what’s happening in the Classical Music field, that’s because it really is. Note also that the significant historical dropping points in TV viewership (post 50s and post 90s) also happens to correspond to similar restructuring of the Sports Industry, Pop Music, and what some folks refer to as points of post growth decline in Classical Music.

Post-Pop and Fragmentation

So some of you might have read this far and wondered “How is the Classical Music Crisis like the Zombie Apocalypse anyway?” Well, as many of those posts above about Classical Music being Undead have pointed out, the “Classical Music Crisis” constantly returns from the grave and seems to come in cycles.

But the real point is that the Classical Music field, as a whole, is doing structurally the same things that all the Popular Entertainment fields, as a whole, are doing. Market Fragmentation and Audience Fragmentation is dividing up the overall economic pie into smaller and smaller segments due to oversupply.  While the aggregate audiences (television households and number of viewers) across all platforms might be growing, there’s much more supply and ease of access to the supply in various formats (including DIY ones).

"Star Trek: Hidden Frontier" is a fan produced series numbering 50 episodes.
“Star Trek: Hidden Frontier” is a fan produced series numbering 50 episodes.

This proliferation supply of content, as well as the increasingly ease of access to the content, has completely changed how audiences interact with forms of entertainment. This is changing the nature of live audiences since they are increasingly bombarded by options as I’ve detailed elsewhere.

The other message here is that, no matter how something in Pop culture looks today, a little perspective can show us how the superstars of now compare to the superstars of yesteryear. Focusing on the current winners’ strategies can completely mask how poorly they compare to the winners in the 90s and even further back in to the 50s. There’s no hegemonic culture anymore (and it could be argued that there never was) and pretending there is one to contrast against with “elitist” culture (e.g. Classical Music) is disingenuous and misleading.

Maybe it’s time to make the kill shot to the head in the “Classical Music Crisis” so we can get on with the business of doing things rather than focusing on the red herring.  Most of us outside of the “mainstream” organizations have been doing it for years if not decades, and we’d rather have support for our efforts rather than distractions from what we’ve been doing.

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