By Allison O’Keefe Wright, Senior Vice President, Open Mind Strategy
Having conducted research for companies ranging from E! to the Science Channel, HotShot drinks for athletes to Hearst content for cooks, we’ve spoken to thousands of people in the past year about their attitudes, content and brand preferences. That work has provided a vantage point on how consumer culture is changing, and on emerging trends.
The Past as Antidote to the Present
The TV and movie landscape has been bombarded with “what’s old is new again” content for years and this is not likely to slow down in 2017. However, there is a deeper way that “nostalgia” is grabbing the interests of TV viewers that will likely grow significantly in the near future: Using the past as an antidote to the present.
It’s no secret that for many, today is not the best of times. The abundance of negativity in media is pushing viewers to their limit; the world is rife with controversies that are pitting side against side at new levels of intensity. What’s the answer to dark today? More focus on yesterday.
New programs set in an old, though not that distant, time are becoming increasingly appealing for a number of reasons. One, they offer an escape from today. Two, they allow appreciation of characters who are on the “wrong side” of certain issues, because they didn’t “know better then.” Three, they provide a platform for stories that break from the norm without breaking modern mores.
Characters can make mistakes and hold opinions you “can’t” today. Boys can be the hero (gasp)—even chauvinist men can be heroes. Story lines can dig into sensitive topics in an exploratory way without the viewer being forced to question or get angry with the protagonist.
Stranger Things, This Is Us, The Americans, Red Oaks, Westworld—the past is showing its face in increasingly intriguing ways. Shows like these allow a momentary escape from 2016/17 to a different, in some cases familiar, time. Sometimes people want out of today, and the past allows us to take a new look at what’s happening around us.
The Resurgence of Strong Male Characters
Millennials were the “Alpha Girl Generation.” Society held girls up as leaders and as a result they out-guyed the guys in confidence, drive and academic achievement. Millennial female heroes like Juno, Hannah Montana, Rachel Berry and Katniss Everdeen told girls to take charge. Meanwhile, male heroes, like the Jackass crew, told guys it was cooler not to try too hard—getting rich riding your skateboard into stuff, and hopefully getting famous pulling pranks, was the better route.
A recent Pew study showed that 2 in 5 18-to-31-year-old men and 1 in 5 25-to-34-year-old men still live in their parents’ homes, compared with only 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 women in these age groups. Guess who isn’t okay with this? Gen Z guys. The next generation of young males believe that girls are equal to them—they respect strong girls and envision a future where they’ll find a female partner who will contribute equally to their joint success.
As Gen Z males begin to redefine masculinity they want characters that demonstrate that it’s not only okay for girls to be strong and smart. They too want to look up to intelligent role models who have it together and have their man card.
Guided Search and the Death of Surfing
As life becomes steadily more dependent on the internet, the methods by which viewers discover new content on TV have also changed. Simple “channel surfing” is becoming outdated, while efficient category-driven guided search gains popularity, particularly among younger adults. Guided search and custom “for you” content guarantees that viewers will find something enjoyable to watch and offers a more reliable return on the time spend searching. In 2017, there are several strategies that networks can implement to guide viewers to their air and compete with guided search platforms, like Netflix and Hulu.
With the plethora of entertainment options available today, one may assume that for the media consumer this means hours upon hours of new discoveries on TV. Instead, we’re seeing a gravitation back to old favorites. Busy lives mean that consumers have to make the most of their TV time, and they often want guaranteed enjoyment rather than taking a risk for a new show. The ease of rewatching something old may mean trouble for unscripted “background” shows in the coming year.
Heroes Needed—Anti-Heroes Are On the Way Out
We are looking for role models, and looking for a ray of hope in troubling times. Where anyone sees a crisis, which almost everyone does today, they will look for a new hero to emerge. Not all of the heroes we find are perfect, but they feel real and diverse and inspiring. They give us hope.
Allison O’Keefe Wright is a researcher and strategist specializing in media and consumer culture. As Senior Vice President, Managing Director, Research and Strategy at Open Mind Strategy, Allison consults major brands on positioning, product development and marketing across various demographics. Allison has a unique ability to humanize data, and believes a sense of humor is often the key ingredient to draw truth from consumers and inspire clients and partners to delight in new insight and understanding. Allison previously led research and planning divisions at MTV and EMI Music and has received global recognition for her expertise in the millennial market.