Who Stole The Audience?

A few words with Garry Trudeau

Back in the late ’70s, I created an animated “Doonesbury” special for NBC. The network declined to order another because of disappointing ratings. The show had 21 million viewers. On an average night, “The Daily Show,” a huge hit, pulls 1.5 million viewers. It’s a different world.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

I’m constantly amazed at how ratings for “hit” TV series these days would be considered grounds for quick cancellation decades ago.

Time fragmentation — choice choice choice — has led to audience declines for everything except two things: games and porn.

All that time kids used to spend reading — reading “trashy” things like comic books? All that time has been taken away from reading and given over to games.

Need proof of that?

Sales Figures

I was in a recent discussion on a message board where someone was asking about sales figures now compared to the early 1990s. He was surprised to learn that even the top selling titles today are little more than half some of drek that was being published back then.

Here is some perspective to consider:

Marvel and DC sales figures

Our story begins in the early 1940s where some individual comics sold by the million. If memory serves, Superman’s top sales were 1.6 million copies an issue, but the original Captain Marvel hit the record at 2 million.

Bold emphasis added by me.

His memory is correct, too.

And some more perspective for recent time, from the same link:

In 1979 a typical comic sold 100,000 copies, and much more ten years earlier. But today, 20,000 is common, and comics only survive because they make extra sales in trade paperback compilations.

Boldfaced emphasis added by me.

And here is proof of that:

Top 300 Comics Actual–June 2009

These are estimates of the sales on comic books by Diamond U.S. to comic specialty stores during June 2009.

The three biggest sellers are 168,604 copies, 112,287 copies, and 97,680. Look at the drop-off from each one! That’s a double-digit percentage drop!

I’ll leave it up to someone with spreadsheet and math skills to look at the sales figures of those 300 titles and draw the analytic conclusions. Let me just say that in the mid-1970s, I visited the offices of DC Comics with another fan (someone brighter than me at that time) and he knew the past circulation figures and was astonished back then at how sales had dropped to just one-tenth of what they had been in the 1940s. By the 1980s, the already-small sales of that 1970s day had been cut in half!

Several things, of course, happened at once:

1) People my age entered the workforce
2) Comics began to primarily go to speciality stores sales
3) Comics became expensive
4) The age of the computer and videogame was at hand

Today, a kid is more likely to encounter a videogame before a comic book. And which would he find more exciting, more interesting, and occupy more of his time before coming to a conclusion? And even worse: if the videogame is based on a comic book, what incentive is there for a kid to slow down to the speed of reading? Why look at, say, drawings of Batman when the game allows him to be Batman?

As for porn, it’s all free. No man wants to watch a full story when it comes to viewing sex. And this has led to carnage in the porn industry too — Recession, free sites hurt porn industry:

“It’s the free stuff that’s killing us, and that’s not going away,” said Dion Jurasso, owner of Combat Zone porn production company, which he said has seen business drop by 50 percent during the last three years.

I don’t have to provide links to anything. I will only note that sexual specialties that people would have had to pay high prices for are now available absolutely free in hundreds — if not thousands — of clips online without having to pay a single penny to see them. There are directory sites that are like the old Yellow Pages phone directories, slicing money-shot clips into very thin categories too. Since most people don’t give a damn who a porn actor is, these clips are age-free and endless competition.

It’s too bad there isn’t a way to gather reliable and comprehensive statistics about how every American spends a full month of time. I think such statistics would open many eyes and reveal where the audience has gone.

In 1985, the late Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Had he lived to see today, what kind of sequel would he have written?

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