Monthly Archives: January 2014

Reflections #1: The Nature of Predictions and Art

We have ample sociological study and statistical proof that the forecasts of futarians, marketing forecasters, psychics, etc., are no more accurate in their predictions than you get tossing a coin. Polls and surveys can yield useful and accurate data, depending on the poll and the type of data, but while sociologists may have good collection methods, the market researchers, journalists and Internet commentators who like to make predictions and arts predictions particularly tend to simply regurgitate the same bromides from decades past and call it new news. They are assisted by the following:

1) People may remember predictions that win the coin toss and turn out to be right, but they will forget the vast body of predictions that turn out to be wrong. So you can repeat predictions that were wrong before and which can be wrong again, and still no one will  remember later that they weren’t relevant. (But in the meantime – page views!)

2) People will view the past as happier, simpler, more naïve and more black and white in beliefs and interests than the current day, which is not remotely accurate for either time period, but allows for the idea of binary shifts in social systems. (I.e. if some zombie novels and films are currently popular, this means society is now more depressed and alienated; the youngest generation is always lazy, etc.)

3) People believe that others buy based purely on being told to do so by marketing and advertising (while they may see themselves as more discerning.) If something is very popular, it’s due to it being a marketing gimmick, rather than its actual content, and that marketing gimmick will supposedly work for all comers. Who taught us this idea? The advertising industry, whose best campaign has been the ads and media for the “how important advertising is” campaign. When this doesn’t turn out to be statistically true, advertisers and media rely on #1 – the forgetting of predictions that were wrong – to work in their favor.

4) Along with the belief that advertising is king, is the belief that what is popular, through that marketing, must therefore kill off every other kind of art in its category. The fact that other types of projects are out on the market, and do well, is ignored in favor of a dog eat dog narrative, that, when it doesn’t come true, is simply forgotten and then later recycled, to fit the binary shift idea of issue #2. It is this rationale that causes the constant predictions that SF is dead, fiction is dead, reading is dead, film is dead, etc.

An excellent example of this in motion is the U.S. t.v. industry. In the 1998-2002 period, U.S. t.v. networks had several large hits with game shows/reality competition shows, chiefly Survivor, American Idol, Big Brother, The Bachelor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, most of which were franchises from European shows that had been successful. Cable channels also delved deep into every sort of reality show and competition show – they were cheap to make, didn’t need to bother with pesky actors and you could pay the writers peanuts for easy drama. ABC went so far as to put Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on five times a week. The forecasters had a field day, predicting that it was the end of “scripted” fictional shows. That shows like CSI, Law & Order and Everybody Loves Raymond were doing very well too was ignored. One group of shows were doing well, and therefore other types must malinger and die.

In 2004, ABC aired the drama show Lost, shortly followed by the dramedy show Desperate Housewives. Both shows were huge ratings hits. Meanwhile, Millionaire got yanked off prime time as ratings fell and put into daytime syndication, while numerous reality shows tanked, despite their inexpensiveness. This success of the two drama shows, combined with the other scripted hits that were already on-going and some other new shows doing well, caused predictors to now claim that one hour dramas had been resuscitated but sitcoms were definitely dead. Only a few years later, with successes like Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, The Office, etc., we were informed that actually, we were in a new golden age of the sitcom. When various cable hits came into play, we were full out in a “new” golden age of television.

And yet network television still is supposedly dead, killed sometimes by cable, then by the Internet and streaming services like Netflix. The fact that the major broadcast networks own most of the cable channels, provide most of the Internet streaming content and are teamed up to supply original content on the Net, not to mention have numerous multi-media hits on broadcast – that all goes unremarked. That advertisers cut their ads on the Internet also goes interestingly unremarked. Right now, the big money is on combining Net and t.v., which doesn’t really take out any form of network.

This also happens in written fiction on a regular basis, and in written SFFH. In the late 1980’s to the very early 1990’s, tie-in fiction had produced a lot of well-selling series, mostly for the fantasy gaming area, such as the TSR D&D books. Media predicted that because these books were easy sells, getting shelf space in bookstores and comic book stores, and theoretically cheaper since the writers were writers for hire, that the tie-ins would start wiping out original fiction, starting with SFFH and working outward.

Obviously, this did not occur. Sales of tie-in books leveled out, even as tie-in lists expanded to take in more television shows and movies. Star Wars books did well by recruiting big name SFF authors to do them, but TSR did poorly on several fronts, and was sold when nearly bankrupt. In SFFH, the flood of tie-in readers then dug into epic fantasy fiction and helped that sector survive better than most the shrinkage of the U.S. wholesale/mass market paperback market in the 1990’s, and the success of Star Wars, Doctor Who and Halo tie-ins has given readership boosts periodically to science fiction.

This is good because of course in the oughts, science fiction was clearly to media and many on its last legs (again.) The basic arguments were first, that because technology was wondrous and beyond prediction, nobody was interested in reading science fiction anymore, never mind that in the heyday of multi-media interest in SF, the 1950’s-1980’s, technology was also wondrous – leading to an interest in science fiction. The second argument was that in the category market, the same publishers did both science fiction and fantasy and fantasy was clearly “winning”, meaning the publishers would kill off science fiction – never mind that the pool of fantasy readers and science fiction readers has enormous overlap and publishers need more readers, not fewer.

I had many long arguments with folks making the latter prediction particularly. It didn’t matter what got pointed out – the growing success of science fiction in YA as that market expanded, with such series as The Hunger Games, Maximum Ride and the Uglies; that Hollywood was optioning up both classic and new SF titles for adaptation; the success of science fiction television shows like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. These things were considered insufficient, not big enough and the category market could not be sustained. The arguments were remarkable similar to the claim in the late 1990’s that contemporary fantasy was totally unimportant in the field, compared to pre-industrial secondary world fantasy, despite bestselling authors like Neil Gaiman and Laurell K. Hamilton.

Contemporary fantasy hit a perfect storm of attention along with paranormal romance expanding and horror (often contemporary set,) as well. By 2004, it was the fast field in fantasy that was going to wipe everything else out and leave us with nothing but vampires. (Hint: it didn’t.) Science fiction is currently taking over television and the summer blockbusters, is a major force in YA, does brilliantly in horror and with zombies, and is gaining more and more media attention. The category SF market isn’t dying off – it’s expanding.

Does this mean that we should stop making predictions about the arts, etc.? Humans always make predictions. But the all or nothing predictions that continually see the arts as some kind of war, we could see less of those. Art doesn’t like to throw things out and kill them off; it prefers to keep them and expand them when it’s possible. The odds of a story form dying off just because another type of story form is doing very well are, well, pretty much nil. So this year, consider tempering your predictions accordingly.


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