This past Sunday the New York Times ran an article about the recent successes of one of my current favorite TV shows, Scrubs.
The basic lede of the article, born out in the quotes below, is that the more Scrubs played to its existing fans, the more new fans it won:
The result is that “Scrubs,” always a schizophrenic mix of cartoonish jokes, surrealist fantasy sequences and genuinely poignant life-or-death moments, has become even weirder, thick with inside jokes, psychotic monologues, a cappella singing in the elevator, bizarre secondary characters like the High-Fiving Surgeon, the Sweaty Lawyer and the Absent-Minded Morgue Attendant, and the continuing adventures of a megalomaniacal maintenance man who has crowned himself the King of Janitoria.
“Rather than trying to seek out new viewers, our survival technique was to try and hold on to the old ones,”
Curiously, this strategy appears to have brought in new viewers. After being held out of the NBC fall lineup (in spite of its four Emmy nominations last year), “Scrubs” returned in January, and in its first weeks had some of its highest ratings, averaging nearly 8 million viewers on Tuesday nights.
This technique is actually something that works quite well in the online/new media space as well. Reaching out to fanbases to help you market your product, service or television show is a proven winner.
These people find their friends, acquaintances and relatives who don’t know about you and they become evangelists. Look at the simple success of those quiz badges and you immediately see the positive impact fans can have in moving memes of all kinds forward.
Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, sums it up nicely:
“If you don’t start out as the most prominent show on the network, with huge ratings right off the bat,” he said, “you have to readjust yourself almost immediately to say, ‘Who is our core audience and what are they responding to?’ ”
“It’s like politicians deciding to play to their core constituencies,” he said.
“A competently made, middle of the road show, which used to be the network model, isn’t going to generate that level of passion,” he said. “So you have to do what we’ve done, what I think ‘My Name Is Earl’ and ‘The Office’ have done, which is to write a show so quirky and so specific that you’re acknowledging right out of the gate that it’s not going to have universal appeal. But for the people it does appeal to, it’s going to have an iron-clad grip.”
Despite my generous blockquoting, you should read the whole thing.
And in the future, I think Bill Lawrence is right. TV shows have to have specific tones and not just actors against laugh tracks or the latest hit song.
Shows that speak with a unique, defined voice are the ones people “love” and not the ones they endure while waiting for the better shows to come on.
Oh, and I actually think My Name is Earl owes a debt of gratitude to Scrubs. Both are quirky, single camera comedies that always tie up neatly in the end. You couldn’t have had Earl without JD first.
My two cents.