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Can “Gravity Falls” Creator’s Niche Success Make the Leap to Mainstream Appeal?

Can "Gravity Falls" Creator's Niche Success Make the Leap to Mainstream Appeal?

 

It’s been a hit for The Disney Channel ever since it first
appeared on TV screens in 2012, but next month, Gravity Falls finally comes to
an end. While that door is being closed, a window is being opened, as creator
Alex Hirsch signs
on
to develop a new show for FOX. The questions are: What kind of
challenges will he face, and can he find similar success in a radically
different environment?

 

Gravity Falls is a great show, of that there is no doubt.
Not only does it have a brilliantly original concept to draw from, it also
appeared fully formed and ready to attract a legion of fans; a feat easily
accomplished. It’s humorous, but also serious, and the spooky theme turned out
to be a way for the show’s creative team to stuff oodles of references,
in-jokes, and obscure foreshadowing details into every episode. Such qualities
translated into ratings gold, and a second season was quickly ordered.

 

Yet for all its success, Gravity Falls remains a niche show.
It is broadcast on a cable network (and a kids’ one at that), it’s large
fanbase is small relative to others, and although the show had plenty of appeal
across demographics, it didn’t attain mass awareness amongst the general
population.

 

Gravity Falls was also created and distributed under a set
of rules and circumstances that are quite different from the broadcast network
arena that Hirsch is moving into. There are three big challenges he’ll face:

 

1.     Creating
a show with mass appeal

2.     Attracting
enough viewers to survive cancellation

3.     Acquiring
a fanbase on par with Gravity Falls

The first challenge is relatively simple: broadcast networks
are defined by the size of their audiences. Nielson ratings have an enormous
influence on whether your show is even produced, let alone whether it continues
to live once it is. Simply put, the show has to appeal to a large and broad
demographic. In this instance, I’m willing to bet that’s males aged 18-34; a
group that is incredibly lucrative, yet notoriously fickle in terms of taste
when it comes to anything other than sports. FOX has long relied upon the
nuclear family trope for its animated programming and previous deviations such
as Futurama and Sit Down, Shut Up were given the axe despite their excellent
quality as entertainment.

 

Alex Hirsch
Which leads to the second challenge. Getting a show to
series, or at least to pilot is one thing, but staving off cancellation is
another thing entirely. Just because a show is great, clever, and unique
doesn’t guarantee its survival (see previous examples above.) It also needs to
attract an audience that’s suitably large. This could be a real challenge for
Hirsch. Gravity Falls regularly pulled in large audiences, but even the worst
episode of the Simpsons attracts audiences of over 4 million, and regularly
closer to 6-7 million; quite a bit higher than even Gravity Falls most watched
episode. That’s a lot of extra people (and picky adults ones at that) to have
to entice.

 

Furthermore, FOX relies upon advertising making its revenues
heavily tied to audience numbers. The Disney Channel on the other hand is not
only a cable channel, but one where there are no commercial ads whatsoever.
Disney’s deep pockets are more than able to fund the channel because the
company knows that the Consumer Products division is perfectly capable of
crafting merchandise that brings in the necessary revenue. Gravity Falls
thrived not only because it was good, but also because the financial system it
operated under helped ease any concerns tied to ratings. FOX has proven that
they are not nearly as tolerant of under-performing shows, and balancing that
with creativity could be tough.

 

Lastly, there is the question of a fanbase. Gravity Falls
was the right show at the right time, riding the popularity wave of
quirky-yet-hip animated TV shows created by Adventure Time. Fans rallied around
a show whose creators were more than willing to keep them entertained. The show
galvanized a diverse range of fans young and old, casual and devoted alike. The
fanbase exploited all the internet tools available to them like Tumblr, GIFs,
comics, and more. It grew organically, which made it strong, and it grew independently,
which gave it authenticity. Even the merchandise seemed to be perfectly
designed more for those who love the show instead of merely making money for
Disney.

 

Will FOX be able to provide a similar level of fan
cultivation? Given historical precedent, my guess would be no. Outside of the
special case that is Simpsons, FOX has been infamously poor at handling the
success of their shows. Some, like Family Guy, were fortunate enough to be so
good, they were able to cultivate a fanbase in spite of FOX’s actions. Times
may have changed of course, but it should be of concern that while Disney was
happy to give adult fans outside of the target demographic mostly free reign,
they will be actively targeted for exploitation by FOX. This brings along the
risk that fans are turned off by an all-to-eager marketing campaign, or are
disenfranchised by corporate interference.

 

Naturally these are all challenges faced by any creator that
produces a show, and in having a success like Gravity Falls, Mr. Hirsch is
already more knowledgeable and experienced than many of his peers. We wish him
the best in his endeavours, but remind everyone else that their future success
is far from assured.

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