THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE MISSING SPECTATOR has little to do with the Digital Revolution
An important producer mentioned his concern that film –as in the complete experience of going to the cinema– was dying. There has been a progressive, constant and noteworthy decline in the number of spectators going to the movies over the last 30 years (not necessarily in the amount of money generated by these spectators, as box office prices have raised enormously during the same period). In part, he blamed the economic crisis; but more importantly –and along with many others in the business, he blamed “videos” for the audience decline. Who would want to go out to the movie theater when you can enjoy the film right at home, for free or for little?
Of course this sounds both logical and reasonable; however it lacks appropriate contextualization. Why? If “videos” were the only culprit, then only the movie theaters would have seen their audiences decline, yet this is not the case. Around the world, television has also suffered a dramatic decline in its viewing public. For example: Let’s recall that 10 years ago  the most successful soap operas obtained close to 70 points of rating on the percent-of-TV-households scale, while just last year  they barely managed to obtain 44 points [and when I updated this article in 1995, top ratings were around 30 points, only). Therefore, if the economic crisis were the culprit, we would have seen an increase in the number of TV viewers. Nevertheless, and in spite of it costing the viewer almost nothing, the open-TV viewing population has dwindled, too.
Furthermore, the decline in the number of spectators attending films in movie theaters began over thirty years ago. However, the economic crisis was not sharply felt in Mexico until two-and-a-half presidential mandates (fourteen years ago, at which time, our population was supposed “to enjoy the abundant benefits of our oil production”, according to the then president of Mexico).
Not only have movie theaters lost a large part of their viewers; the continued existence of newspapers –actual ink on paper– is in danger due to the huge decline of demand. The heretofore leading magazines sold at newsstands have cut back the number of copies published by almost fifty percent (according to what they themselves declare to advertisers). Two examples: the magazine TVyNovelas [Translation: TV and Soap Operas], which just two years ago published one million copies biweekly, only sells today 697,338 copies today [first trimester of 1995]; and the “Novelas con Corazón” series (translations of Mills&Boon/Harlequin romances to Latin American Spanish, published under the collection names of Jazmín, Bianca, Julia, Bárbara [Cartland], Superromance and Deseo) which published a total of 594,000 copies per month at the beginning of 1991, today sell less than one-third of that number, according to their sources.
…And yet the market for used books and magazines is at an all time high: One pays up to 50% for a used copy of a Jazmín (“more than 5 years old, please!”), that will probably be battered, creased, soiled and dog-eared, and …. hard-to-find, given that nobody is ready to sell theirs. You may pay even more for an old Libro Vaquero [Translation: The Cowboy Book, a periodical, thick, comicbook]. The Classics series of Lágrimas, risas y amor [Translation: Tears, laughter and love] will cost a lot more than their original price. And if we analyze the consumption of Mexican films, we need only take note of the degree of viewers’ enjoyment of Allá en el Rancho Grande [Translation: “Out on the Big Ranch”], or that obtained through watching movie classics from the Mexican Cinema Golden Age, like Pedro Infante’s, Jorge Negrete’s, Sara García’s and Joaquín Pardavé’s –our incomparable “Don Susanito” [a renowned character that appeared in many unrelated movies, and whose name, if translatable, would roughly stand for “dear Mr. Susan”]–.
The “movie people” are responsible for their own crisis. Those who work in the media have looked down on their public.
- They wanted to be celebrated as “serious” “high-brow” “artists/authors”; and they have systematically scorned and ridiculed the values, ideas and beliefs of the society in which they live and exist (while creating “popular art”!)
- –frequently even attacking them directly in order to appear more “original” (when making a collective aesthetics “art” which SHOULD be accessible to all!);
- and vowing to be “faithful only to their own aesthetics and values” (…or lack of them, when considered from their audiences’ point of view…),
- in an art that characterizes itself for building upon and promoting the values, ideas and beliefs shared by the majority of society!
- In short: –With the pretention of not “selling out” to the public, …yet perhaps selling out to viciously envious colleagues, sleepless art-critics, politically-conditioned Government endowments and grants, politically active minorities, lobbying strategists, and less-than-clean contests and prizes, all of them frequently biased ideologically.
My eyes are going over a 1987 interview of a famous soap opera script-writer, while I write these lines –an excellent writer, by the way. He sarcastically referred to his viewers as “Tía Nela” [an equivalent of Aunt Dolly]. In fact, he was referring to us and our children when he scorned her, since we comprise part of that public.
They scorn us to the extent of assuming all we want are morbid (unhealthy) contents, but this erroneous assumption is costing them a great deal. The radio soap operas department at “la voz de la América Latina” [one of the first and most potent radio broadcasting stations in Latin America], closed down definitively in December of 1994, since it was unable to achieve even the minimum required ratings. They thought they would capture our interest with carnal scenes described in even more detail than in so-called “gentlemen’s” magazines! They were wrong; in spite of what many think, their public is not looking for that, we are not looking for that.
This arrogant and contemptuous assumption has inevitably leaked through TV and movie screens, which has moved us to reduce our “consumption” of media products, as much as possible. We –the consumers, have every right to expect quality and respect from those who aim to sell us their products.
However, we still need some kind of narrative, both fictional and real –they fulfill various social functions in each of us. And that is why we turn to popular classics, used books and older works. We do so with the hope that media authors remember one day that they were just like us –that their social function was to become spokespersons for our shared wisdom about life –to give voice to our convictions, to mainstream popular values. We hope they will come back to their senses one day, and stop behaving like our enemies and our judges. We are not gallows’ flesh, nor are we going to kiss the hands of those who have decided to feel ahead and above us without first living in an exemplary and deserving way. This explains why we still eagerly seek out and enjoy those early films and cartoons which, in order to appeal to the public, didn´t have to resort to violent language or actions , to shocking material, foul language, flesh and guts flying all over the place, unusual or eccentric lifestyles, and other such things.
This also explains why the author who referred to us, his consumers/viewers, as “Tía Nela”, has not produced any truly successful work –except when an old work of his was re-transmitted, since he gave that interview.
After all, we deserve respect. And our tastes, values ideas and beliefs, do as well.
UPDATE (NOTE ADDED ON NOVEMBER, 26th, 2011):
The Digital Revolution (i.e.: the proliferation of the internet, personal computers and mobile/portable devices, and the extent to which they reshape our lives) is currently being blamed for the dramatic sales fall that traditional and electronic media are experiencing. This article, originally published in 1994, is clear proof of the implausibility of this myth: The Internet was officially born in 1993, only one year before this article was written; at a time its reach was far from widespread in Mexico, media had already been losing sales and audiences steadily for years (in some cases), and for decades (in others).
This argument is further supported by the fact that few –if any, of the media products’ sales recorded here, ever recuperated their previous audiences, and many have disappeared altogether:
Most of the “libros” (El Libro Vaquero, El Libro Semanal, El Libro Sentimental, etc.) published by Editorial Novedades –long narrated dramatic stories in black-and-white, or brown-and-white comic stripes, that constituted the mainstay of the magazine market in Mexico for decades, have long been absent from it.
“Jazmines”, the Mexican translation of Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances that used to sell well in many Latinamerican/Iberoamerican countries, have also stopped being published –only a minimum amount is imported from Spain, at a much higher price.
Box-office sales, understood as the number of tickets sold, keeps falling dramatically, except for temporary raises when massive amounts of money are invested in renewing the theaters and acquiring new technologies (that is: invested in calling the audience’s attention with luxuries, special comforts, or technological novelties, instead of through contents agreeable to them). But these temporary raises have never lasted long enough to allow the larger part of the industry to recuperate.
Most-succesful telenovelas (the Iberoamerican/Latinamerican soap opera format that has sold so well around the world for decades) hit their bottom prime-time ratings in Mexico, at 17 points, after which they “stopped sliding”. How can we account for this strange paralysis? Maybe TV broadcasting companies in Mexico stopped “trusting” rating agencies altogether, maybe they did reach their minimum-possible prime-time audiences –those which reflect the number of spectators who are either not ready, or are unable, to migrate to other media formats due to old age, illness, or lack of financial resources. Or maybe companies started “buying” ratings –considering that as far as we know, there is still a case in court in Uruguay about ratings manipulated by both a channel and a governmental-party representatives, and that the social-experience correlation of tv-consumption, is not as evident as it used to be during their Golden Age (for Mexico: 1983-1987).
Mexican telenovelas’ derivative-products have logically been affected by their fall, and so the TVyNovelas magazine –still one of the most sold periodicals in Mexico, is selling but a minimum fraction of what it used to in 1987 –when telenovelas were followed passionately by much larger audiences, and the magazine did not accept the tabloid-style contents which constitute most of what it publishes today.
Newspapers in Spain give away movies, croissants and other niceties, in order to attract buyers (not readers); and also through special offers (gadgets, watches, sporting equipment, book collections, and other such things), open only to those who demonstrate buying their papers for a specified number of days, so that their editorial boards can “guarantee” an acceptable market share to their advertisers for a fixed period of time.
Also in Spain –and by admission of a movie-programming director from a national mainstream TV channel (Antena 3) during the recent III Forum on Cultural Industries, only family-friendly films raise their audience-ratings notably and sistematically, no matter how old they may be –he mentioned a 40 years-old film by former star Marisol, which may easily obtain a 30 % audience-share any day. However, producers systematically refuse to create this type of films nowdays, …assuming they still know how. The director of Fantastic, an important film-festival in Barcelona, Spain, pointed out an incredible paradox: There has never been a larger consumption of movies in history, yet people systematically prefer those created in the 80’s, to those produced today, even if they already know the older ones by heart (so much for the “make them cry, make them laugh, but above all make them wait…” media have repeated like a mantra for years!).
Also in this event, TeleCinco’s representative acknowledged that –combined, the 3 main national TV companies only reach half the audience they “had” 15 years ago. This confirms what we have published on other accasions, that companies are talking about audience-shares to avoid showing total-audience percentages, thus masking that less people are watching them every day. Again: This started happening long before the Digital Revolution….
Contrary to professionally-generated media contents, internet’s contents generated by the user-public (think of FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, e-mail chains and attachments, and the like), are –in the vast majority of cases, “clean” (concordant and agreeable in regards to the general audiences’ values, ideas and beliefs).
Cfr.: The winning study at Ireland’s Annual Scientific Contest regarding what teenagers from different European countries watch in YouTube:
[Link to the original press release: It is noteworthy that, despite the fact that these young researchers were invited to present their results to the London School of Economics and to Google-Europe’s main offices, the report was conveniently erased from the Irish Press Releases’ server, as well as from Google searches]
[Another link to this report, thanks to the insitution that organized the study)][Likewise, this link was later erased as well (March, 2015)].
And people are consuming these “cleaner” contents massively, verging on addiction.
Society cannot possibly send mass media a more conclusive message, or state its case in a stronger way.
What are they waiting for to react accordingly…?
Illustration source: DreamsTime.com Image Bank (© Satori13).
ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED…
(SOURCE’S BIBLIOGRAPHIC/HEMEROGRAPHIC/VIDEOGRAPHIC DATA):
Blanca de Lizaur; “Hablando de los ‘medios’: El misterio del espectador perdido”, Humanidades, UNAM # 93 , pages 3 and 16.
Currently available… (current repository): http://www.mejoresmedios.org