Years ago, back in the dark days before cable, streaming services, and digital downloads, a couple of TV shows died in the ratings. One languished for a while before finally getting canceled. One went damned near unwatched during its first season- causing network heads worry about its likely failure as a series. It’s kind of funny looking back on the early years of the two shows and seeing that now. The first, Star Trek, became one of the biggest television properties of all time. The second, M*A*S*H, became one of the most popular television series ever aired.
Star Trek failed to survive its initial run with the network, but it found both a loyal and surprisingly large audience once it went to syndication. It probably greatly helped the series when it was suddenly available for casual viewing in the afternoon on multiple days throughout the week. It probably helped it more when early, content hungry cable came along and casual viewers could find it airing multiple times per week at various times in the day and on more than one channel. People who may have passed up on it during its primetime network run found it because it was suddenly more conveniently available to them. A show they might have passed on because it looked “weird” and was on against a show that was an established favorite was now something that was easy to channel surf into and discover.
M*A*S*H benefited from being around in the days of limited television options and the existence of fairly uniform television seasons. Its first season ratings were poor, but it started to find an audience in the off season. With a much smaller number of channels in existence, people seemed to play catch-up on the series when the first run season was over and everything else was into repeats. I’m not really sure why M*A*S*H was able to do that so well while Star Trek wasn’t. Being a more conventional, 30 minute comedy format and being based on a well known movie may have helped it on that front.
So why, you might be wondering right now, have I got a picture of Sterling Archer up top and what has late 1960’s and early 1970’s television have to do with Netflix? And what has any of this got to do with cosplay? I’m getting there.
Archer was a pretty successful series for FX. However, success on a cable channel like FX is a relative thing. Archer’s season 3 (2011) ratings were touted as the most successful season for the series, making it a ratings smash for FX averaging 3.19 million viewers for the season. That’s some pretty good ratings in the cable world, but Archer seemed to remain relatively unknown outside of its fanbase.
That’s not to say that it was totally unknown on the convention scene. There were cosplays based on the show showing up at cons back in 2010 and 2011. There were some at Dragon Con in 2011, but most people, me included, didn’t know what they were.
Fast forward four years. 2015’s Dragon Con had a noticeable invasion of individual cosplyers and groups doing Archer cosplays. Sterling popped up a lot, full cast lookalike groups posed for cameras everywhere, and there were times when you found yourself surrounded by hordes of Krieger clones. More importantly, lots of people noticed and lots of people knew who they were.
It’s actually received comment on the various podcasts that cover the geek scene and more than a few discussion boards and con pages. Everyone has noticed an influx of Archer based cosplays at cons this year and cosplayers doing an Archer cosplay have noted that they’re being recognized more. There seems to be some level of surprise that there’s been this development- especially given the ratings hemorrhage that Archer has seen in recent years. The season that ended in early 2015 had less than a third of the average viewers as the 2011 season.
So why was there this sudden increase in convention visibility? I can speak only for myself here, and perhaps those I’ve spoken with as well, but I think the answer seems to be Netflix.
I really had no idea what Archer was prior to the end of 2014. I’d seen it mentioned on social media here or there and had a rough idea of what it was, but I’d never actually seen it and I knew few people who knew what it was at all. Then it popped up on Netflix in late 2014 and got another visibility bump on the Netflix lists when a new season was added to streaming in early 2015.
I’d watched the first episode on Netflix in 2014 and it failed to really win me over. It was funny enough, but not in a way that I really wanted to watch it again. I mentioned it to a friend who I knew had talked about Archer before. He suggested I watch the first five or six episodes in one go. He said it really got into its groove by episodes four or five and it would hook me by that point. I didn’t really get around to it until it popped back up on the lists in 2015 though. Seeing there again, I figured I’d take his advice and give it a go through the first five episodes. Halfway into season 2 I figured I should unhook from the TV and go to bed.
A number of people I know who are now Archer fans have said that they came into the show basically the same way. They were either, as I was, someone who cut their cable cord and never had the chance to see it, or they had cable but never watched it when it was on because it was up against something they wanted to see more. Now, thanks to Netflix and binge watching, they’re huge fans.
This makes the whole Archer situation seem really weird at first glance. It’s arguably more popular than ever. More people have seen it and talk about it, it’s showing up in force at cons in the form of cosplay, and I even know people outside of geek circles who now know what it is and talk about how much they like it. In the meantime, it’s been bumped from FX to FXX and it’s struggling to break a higher than a third of the ratings figures it had in its biggest seasons. The newfound popularity isn’t translating to ratings success.
Maybe it’s the nature of the Netflix viewers. Netflix has close to 40 million US subscribers. That’s a pretty big audience, and it’s filled with a lot of people who have cut the cable cord. It’s also filled with people who have cable, but find it more convenient to watch something like Archer when they want to watch it rather than when it’s actually on FXX these days. It’s the modern version of the people who found Star Trek and M*A*S*H after the fact. It may explain the recent Archer cosplay boom and the seemingly huge recent jump in Archer’s general popularity even as the FXX ratings drop.
It may also underscore a problem I referenced here. Some people simply can’t watch Archer on FX as they cut the cable cord. Others can watch it, but their preferred method has been waiting for the show to go streaming and binge it. The show is seemingly more popular than ever, but dying in the ratings. It may be finding a bigger audience than ever before on streaming, but the source of original content creation is suffering to the point that it may not survive much longer to create new content to make its way to streaming.
Streaming is awesome, but it needs to get its new content from somewhere. If the new content dies off, no more new streaming content is going to come along with most properties. It’s an interesting situation. It may also be an example of a puzzle that needs to be figured out sooner rather than later by the powers that be as our entertainment mediums change.