Bender, the Bluths, and The Beauty of Niche Programming

This afternoon, as I was deciding if I wanted to go for a run or settle down and do some work on the book, I abandoned both notions, instead opting to tackle a mountain of dishes. I scrolled through Netflix to find something to have on in the background and landed on an old favorite: Futurama.

As I scrubbed away at the residue of breakfast sandwiches and fried rice, I realized that I have a few standbys when I’m looking for a show to watch that feels comfortable. Futurama is one, and Arrested Development. Being the sequential thinker that I am, I tried to find a connection between the two shows. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Both shows were on Fox
  • Both shows feature many celebrity cameos, indeed far more cameos than most people realize
  • Both shows have small but positively rabid followings
  • Both shows are what I would consider to be “smart”

 

Bender: Hey, brobot, what’s you serial number?
Flexo: 3370318.
Bender: No way! Mine’s 2716057!
Fry: I don’t get it.
Bender: We’re both expressible as the sum of two cubes.

I’m of the belief that there’s a connection between those last two bullets. Futurama, in addition to being about science fiction and the future, employs mathematicians and scientists to ensure that all equations and numbers referred to are correct. In fact, one of the show’s employees is Kristin Gore Mirsky, the daughter of former Vice President (and multiple episode guest) Al Gore. While Arrested Development isn’t as technically proficient of a show, it is meticulously written and staged, with gags and actors appearing for the length of the series without many noticing until they appear in a major arc. All the puzzle pieces fit.

There are few shows that do this. Most of what appears on TV right now, particularly on network TV, is of the “popcorn variety”. Shows with blockbuster success like (those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me pick on the following programs) Two and a Half Men, Two Broke Girls, and mercifully cancelled fare like Whitney and Outsourced tell you when to laugh, don’t challenge the viewer, and essentially pick easy scenarios for cheap laughs. But there is a growing population that wants more than that from their television.

I believe this is the reason for the sharp uptick in viewers for intricate shows like Game of Thrones, based on a series of challenging books, and Mad Men, a show that weaves themes and allusions into its fabric more like a novel than a TV show. And there’s a reason that Netflix is selecting thoughtful fare to fuel its original programming- see House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the fourth season of Arrested Development.

So where am I going with this? Well, after a wonderful long weekend, I’m headed back into the office to continue building a programming schedule for the year ahead. And particularly with welcome programming, we look for blockbuster numbers. These programs are designed to bring masses of students in, and we sometimes go for the programming version of the easy laugh to do it. I won’t cite specific examples, but I’m sure we can all think of a few off the tops of our heads.

I’m challenging myself to create the Futuramas and Arrested Developments of our programming schedule. Will they be massively attended? Maybe, maybe not. Is everyone going to understand them? Probably not. But I’m going to be unafraid of that.

Why?

Because one thing that shows like Arrested and Game of Thrones have in common is a lack of casual fans. Talk to anyone who watches those shows. They don’t just watch them, they love them. They fit them. They feel at home when they watch them. I’m okay creating a program that 20-25 students attend, if those students are positively consumed by it. Now, I know there are financial implications to consider here, and I recognize that and promise to be appropriately attentive to that fact 🙂 But if I want to truly help students find their place, it’s hard to do that if you’re trying to please everyone. So along with some of our standard fare, I’m going to do my best to create a few niche projects that silence laugh tracks and bring in experts, and challenge my students to put together some puzzles. How about you?

 

One thought on “Bender, the Bluths, and The Beauty of Niche Programming

  1. I have so many thoughts…
    1. Sometimes, we’re the same person. By reflexive logic, that means you’re also Joel P.

    2. I frequently find myself inspired by Bender… but never about work. This makes so much sense. It’s quite an elegant and simple comparison.

    3. The further I go in my career, the more I have to focus on cost per student. As much as I’d love an event to be like Wonderfalls, it’s not enough. I can live with having a series of consistent events like Futurama (my current programming board does this well)… but we have to have a few NCISs up our sleeves. At the end of the day, we have to justify our ratings.

    4. I can’t wait to share this analogy in the first programming board meeting of the year!

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