The “Long Tail” Is Back

August 3, 2016

Back in 2006, author Chris Anderson wrote a seminal book called “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling More of Less” that postulated that our culture was moving away from a “hit” economy to an economy that relies on the aggregation of niches. Or, that power has shifted away from blockbusters, smash hits, and mega-successful one-off cultural events to the grouping of less-popular or not-as-widely-consumed experiences. This is true, he says, in both business and content.

long tail

Of course, as widely read, taught, and thought about as this idea was, that was 2006. A decade ago. Which might as well be a lifetime given how the content-consumption landscape has changed. That was pre-Snapchat, pre-VR, pre-Twitter, pre-pretty much everything. Netflix still made all of its money by sending discs in the mail in red envelopes. With a world that changes from hour to hour, this simplistic model for where we derive importance, both culturally and economically, seems downright quaint, no? Does it still hold up?

I think about it from time to time, often dismissing it as passé. Content and cultural experience seems to exist more in an endless ocean, where we feel like we’re drowning in a vast sea of content, with only the 90-foot wave of a Marvel-sized movie or Bey-level album drop cresting above the surface. This is different from the “antiquated” long tail model in that it assumes all content is created equal. That a Facebook video is as good as a John Oliver video, is as good as a cat video, is as good as a VR experience, is as good as “Suicide Squad,” and so on. When everything can be accessed on one’s phone, why wouldn’t it be?

That’s until I encountered two Netflix phenomena in one day: “Leo the Lion” and knitting

leothelion

First, Leo. Dubbed “Netflix’s worst movie,” “Leo the Lion” is a garbage Italian CG knockoff of the magisterial Disney classic “The Lion King.” I recently read a fantastic New York Magazine profile on the unearthed gem that dug into a much larger point about content generally. Sure, the movie has awful CGI, the subtitles don’t make any sense or line up with the story, and the plot is laughable to the point of becoming Tumblr fodder, but someone has to be watching, right? And the answer is, shockingly, yes. As NY Mag puts it:

A well-known but often unacknowledged fact of modern life is that the streaming-video market is propped up by garbage. According to the Netflix tracking website Allflicks.net, there are currently 5,239 titles available to American subscribers, but I’d challenge you to name a dozen. Once you get past the first hundred or so titles, the catalogue becomes uncharted territory, audio-visual chum ignored by the pop-culture Establishment. The fact of the matter is that Netflix doesn’t need to have a great catalogue, because it knows that convenience outweighs quality here.

The theory here is simple: Kids don’t care. They’ll watch whatever, especially if it’s animated. So, no matter how bad it is, it behooves Netflix to carry a whole truck load of awful animated titles that would have exactly zero functional life otherwise to prop up their offerings overall. This makes Netflix’s service seem vast and inexhaustible, especially when you don’t care about quality. This is as real a far-right data point on the ‘Long Tail’ graphical curve as does exist today.

knitting-slow-tv-for-wp

The second, was the announcement by Netflix that they are going to start carrying a number of “slow TV” titles. Slow TV, for those who aren’t familiar, is a type of show popularized in Scandinavian countries that plays out events in real time. For instance, a train ride, boat ride, or, in this case, knitting. Literally knitting. Watching women knit. For hours.

While little-known outside of Europe, Slow TV has captivated viewers in its native country with broadcasts of mundane events filmed from start to finish. Its first program, aired in 2009 on state broadcaster NRK, was a recording of a seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Its biggest thrills (spoiler alert) come when the train goes into tunnels. The video attracted about 1 million viewers—about 20% of Norway’s population.

While not as necessarily as “bad” as the aforementioned Leo, it certainly doesn’t take much to ascertain that, at least outside of Europe, ‘Slow TV” is a niche market. While you’d think that the Netflixes of the world market themselves with “House of Cards,” “Stranger Things,” “Daredevil,” “Master of None,” “Bloodline” and beyond, they are actually creating the foundation of their sprawling content mansions with lesser-known, lesser-watched, lesser-quality fare like the above.

So it’s tough to argue the democratic model of content when things like “Leo the Lion” exist. The “Long Tail” model Andersen proposed a decade ago was partly founded on the idea that you can aggregate a bunch of “bad” and “lesser-watched” content that on their own would be nearly worthless, but in their collection are quite meaningful and profitable. Netflix, other streaming services, and even other social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, are taking this model to the heart of their offering. You may not be able to watch The Avengers 5 on their platform, but they still gamble that you won’t ever be able to find the bottom of their rabbit hole. And it’s in that inexhaustibleness that they find their true value.