Thursday, April 10, 2008

Apples and Much Much Bigger Apples

Kevin has a moment of clarity about the comics industry when he reads that CBS canceled a show after it's first episode got only 4.6 million viewers.

But that's a highly unfair comparison.

There is no medium that can compare to television (particularly broadcast television) in terms of popularity.

Yes, the comics industry is a small niche market. The best selling comics sell a hundred thousand, maybe, and the average is sales are closer to the ten thousand range (maybe higher if you're Marvel or DC, but not by much). So if 4.6 million people bought a comic, it would be the best selling comic in the last thirty years.

But if a (non-Harry Potter) book sold 4.6 million, it would ALSO be record shattering and pay for all of the other books that publisher would put out that year.

A movie that sold 4.6 million tickets would make 40 million dollars, which is a healthy opening weekend (it's how much "There Will Be Blood" made, total).

Heck, even Battlestar Galactica, a HIGHLY successful show--on cable--had only 2 million tune in for the season 4 premier.

Network television is a low cost medium. Low financial cost (once you've bought the set, broadcast shows are free). Low cost to acquire (the program is piped directly into the home). Low cost to "read" (the pictures and sound happen for you). It's incredibly easy get and understand and enjoy.

Comics, ALL comics, not just the superhero stuff, are high cost mediums. Each issue costs money, they must be acquired at book stores if not specialty shops, and they must be read with a skill for navigating image and word that must be learned. That requires a lot more investment from the reader, and thus a lot less people feel like its worth it.

When you compare comics to a more similarly costed medium, like genre paperbacks (which also must be purchased, which need to be bought in stores or specialty stores, which require specialized knowledge of the genre or series), then the sales numbers become a lot more similar, averaging around ten thousand of so.

And of course I'm talking about comic books. Comic strips, like Dilbert, which are syndicated in almost every paper in America, have GIGANTIC audiences in the high high millions. That's because they are low cost financially (they don't cost extra once you've bought the paper) and they don't require a lot of effort to get (most papers are still delivered to the front door). Web comics have similar advantages of ease of acquiring.

But they'll still be comics, with a sequence of words and pictures telling a story, which means it will still take more effort to read than to watch television, and that's going to reduce potential audience. (not that TV shows can't be complex. Many are. They just don't have to be). So comparing comics to network shows is always going to be comparing apples to apple orchards. Comics just cannot compete.


Kevin Church said...

You may want to take a look at the addendum I just added to the post. I was taken more seriously than I wanted to, which seems to happen pretty often.

Still, a good thoughtful post, and it'd be interesting to compare costs for TV productions compared to revenue and the same for comics. Even with the lower barrier of entry for the latter, I'd be surprised if TV didn't stomp comics in the head.

Steven said...

Actually I missed the addendum entirely.

I did realize I was taking you MUCH more seriously than you intended though, which is why I turned my over-long, over-researched comment into a post on my own blog.

It's just that the orders of magnitude difference between network tv audiences and everything else happens to be an interest of mine, so your post just got my brain working.

Derek said...

I wonder what the "upper limit" (not the right phrase, but I can't think of a better one at the moment) of comics sales is.

For example, I know in the nineties comics sales hit their peak, but a lot of that was... illegitmate? I mean, people were buying comics and not reading them, and the companies were taking advantage of that with variant covers and foil covers and whatnot.

It's probably a pointless exercise anyway. "Legitimate" sales could break past that peak easily if the Big Two were more concerned with breaking the stigma and bringing in new readers rather than milking every last cent out of a dwindling number of die-hards.

Angelo said...

Steven's right.