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Widercasting: Cable Networks Abandon the Niche

by Ethan Tussey

by Darcey West Morris for IN MEDIA RES

This week’s posts examined niching in the past (1980s children’s television), present (bronies’ and My Little Pony, exploiting fanboys) and future (the new YouTube). I posit that the primacy of the niche is decreasing in today’s splintered, digitized marketplace. Scholars, such as Turow (2008), argue that in an era of increased audience fragmentation, niche groups are highly valued, and media companies strategize to separate consumers into isolated clusters. However, I maintain that the cable television industry is undergoing several shifts that move it away from narrowcasting and towards creating a broad, general entertainment audience. 

This shift, which I call “widercasting,” is not occurring because new media technologies make it possible to consume more television, but because viewers actually are – by the millions – and it is in the networks’ economic interest to provide content that attracts a wider segment of the audience. Viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from and increasingly watch television in nontraditional ways. To succeed in a highly competitive environment, it’s necessary to target more than one narrow demographic.

General entertainment networks, such as USA or TNT, boast higher profit margins than their broadcast counterparts due to the combination of low costs, high ratings and subscriber fees. It’s no wonder that smaller, niche networks struggling with ratings are modifying their strategies to imitate that model.

Take the case of SyFy’s recent rebranding initiative. In 2009, the network announced a name change from Sci-Fi to SyFy along with a plan to feature broader programming. Executives admitted a desire to distance Syfy from "the stereotypical aliens-and-outer-space niche" while cashing in on the mass popularity of fantasy-leaning films, such as Twilight, that are taking the genre into the mainstream.

The difference can be seen in the promotions alone. Sci-Fi ads in the 1990s featured video clips that seemed like scenes taken directly from science fiction films, such as a planet rising up over a house and a mannequin coming to life – all clear attempts at attracting a niche audience. The latest tagline, “Imagine Greater,” and accompanying advertising campaign have mass appeal and apply to a wide spectrum of programming, not necessarily in the traditional science fiction genre.

So far, the bet has paid off as SyFy’s ratings and ad rates have increased since the rebrand. I assert it is but one of many examples of widercasting’s value to niche cable networks in the post-network era.

SyFy "House of Imagination" promo

Syfy promo following the rebranding

from Syfy Promo (2009)
Creator: Syfy
Posted by Ethan Tussey