Why the ‘Real People’ Don’t Understand Us

One reason audiences are deserting TV and movies is that they just don’t know where anything is anymore.

For some reason, I inspire cabbies to talk.

Not just talk but chat, the entire ride. Once that meter starts running, so do they: What do I do for a living? Why am I in the cab? What’s my position on that day’s headlines? Oddly, they all inevitably ask if I’m married with children. When the answer is no and no, they don’t hesitate to lecture on the value of family and offer advice on catching a man.

Once they learn my profession, we talk entertainment. Which is often a weirder conversation than the man-hunting suggestions.

Last week, a cab driver told me that his favorite personality is Bryant Gumbel on "The Today Show." I asked if he meant Bryant and his HBO sports show but, no, he meant "Today." He liked watching Connie Chung, too, and was happy she was pregnant. I tactfully suggested he might be referring to Julie Chen, but no, he said, the one married to Maury. Which made me wonder what cable service he had at home since Bryant left "Today" 12 years ago and Connie’s been MIA on TV since 2006.

It’s not just cab drivers. I’ve had others — the ones the industry calls “civilians,” not a derogatory term but just to define their distance from the inner workings — tell me how much they like Regis and Kathie Lee. 

I note that these days, it’s Kelly. No, they correct me in return, the lady who’s married to Frank the football player. At which point you wonder: Do Reege and Hoda look anything alike? 

People claim to watch shows that haven’t even been in syndication in years; in the present tense, they reference characters long ago written off series. One of the few things people finally get right these days is the correct pronunciation of “Oprah.” Although that probably doesn’t matter much now.

While this is truly random anecdotal research, I’ve come to believe that one reason audiences are deserting television and movies is that they just don’t know where anything is anymore. Like how people who move into new houses tend not to use the fancy security systems or high-tech ovens. 

Those of us on the inside, particularly in advertising, publicity and marketing, have gotten so focused on highlighting the minutiae that we’ve forgotten to educate people on the bigger picture.

A few years ago, I attended a marketing workshop held by a syndication company for stations that had picked up one of its series for the fall. These routinely introduce stations’ marketing executives to the sizeable creative campaigns that syndicators produce for shows’ rollouts. And as part of the deal, a substantial chunk is designed to be customizable for local use.

All the pieces of these campaigns — the on-air promos, print and web ads, outdoor, strategic partner tie-ins and so on — grow from a core marketing positioning developed about the show that the syndicator believes will best sell it to viewers.

This particular gathering was held for a mediocre network sitcom that had had nominal viewership over its four-year run and had regularly changed casts and storylines as fixes. The syndicator’s head of marketing did a fancy presentation outlining the strategy and all the elements of his wildly expensive campaign, then opened up for discussion.

Right off the bat, three of the most important station reps told him it didn’t work.

The room went silent. The marketing guy was seething.

But the stations were right.

They pointed out that judging by the sitcom’s spotty ratings (not to mention its primetime run on a network other than their own), their local audiences likely knew nothing about it. So, they explained, a campaign developed entirely around some generic agency tagline, supported by flashy graphics and quick clips of double entendres, was useless. They — the stations — needed to introduce their viewers to the series’ basics: its concept, characters and setting. And in turn they — the marketing guys — had to now drastically change their campaign.

These days, I’m often as mixed up as my cabbies. Every time I’ve turned to NBC at 10 p.m. to find my usual drama, there’s Jay Leno instead. I’m confused, then annoyed and finally resigned to Anderson Cooper. One night, I was motivated enough to get off the sofa and do some digging. 

At NBC.com, I found episodic storylines, chatrooms, games, Suze Orman giving the Biggest Losers financial advice. But all I wanted — nowhere to be found — was an easy roadmap telling me where my shows were now.

So enough of the navel gazing and speaking only to ourselves.

Here’s the deal: I’ll continue to graciously agree with cabbies that I too love Dan Rather’s CBS newscasts and Dr. O’Malley on "Grey’s Anatomy." But I want smart marketing people to truly take civilians into consideration and to stop assuming that audiences are as knowledgeable and interested in every single tiny detail about entertainment as they are.

And also, I want someone to teach me how to remember where my Law and Order is these days.

Or else we should just bring Connie back.