Niche Consumption Theory challenges the mainstream

Every mainstream entertainment hit – from Marvel to Call of Duty, to prestige TV – is at more risk of a rapid decline in popularity than ever. Fueled by the internet and on-demand media, alternative options are compelling and diversified. So when the audience sees a weak spot in their entertainment library, many bail to new possibilities, even across different forms of media, and don’t look back. Let’s call it Niche Consumption Theory (NCT).

NCT is an underrated contributor to The Marvels bombing. While many factors sunk the box office, from middling reviews to superhero fatigue, it’s exacerbated by having so many great leisure substitutes to swap in. TikTok, PS5, mobile gaming, Netflix reality TV, VR, and other alternatives can look very appealing against a mid-tier MCU film. They won’t match the spectacle of a $300 million movie, but they don’t have to.

Years ago, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings identified NCT as a competitive threat when he cited sleep and Fortnite as bigger competition than Amazon or HBO. Hence, Netflix’s expansion beyond traditional streaming series and movies into gaming.

We’re seeing other big players catch on and diversify their offerings: Warner Discovery head David Zaslav extolled live service gaming platforms on a recent earnings call. Meanwhile, Max and Disney Plus are expanding their content offerings dramatically. Max mixed in Discovery with HBO. Disney bought up all of Hulu, which makes its content very likely to show up as a tile alongside Star Wars and Marvel within the Disney Plus app soon.

A growing library from big services like Max, Paramount, and Disney parallels an explosion in entertainment options elsewhere. Across movies and TV, specialty streaming sites like Shudder (horror fans) and Britbox (BBC and ITV content) have grown in popularity. Social media, primarily thanks to TikTok and Reddit, has gotten more varied, algorithmic, and tailored to individual interests. Streaming music apps expanded beyond songs. Spotify mixed in exclusive podcasts and a vast library of free audiobooks. Apple Music added music videos and a karaoke feature. VR has become more affordable. Tabletop gaming, particularly D&D, made a big comeback.

If a grab bag of new entertainment options wasn’t enough to fuel NCT, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed its potential even further. People became resourceful, especially around dipping their toes into new forms of media and entertainment.

I’m not immune to the effect of NCT either, particularly over the last few years. Four years ago, I had an even split in my free time across movies, TV, and games. I’ve always had a taste for more art house exotic fare, but I watched a lot of blockbusters and network TV as well. I’d jump from a marathon of New Girl episodes to Portrait of a Lady On Fire. I’d play multiplayer matches in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot and then watch Joanna Hogg’s slow-burn indie The Souvenir.

Emerging media trends changed that behavior. I watched less TV because I was bored and unsatisfied with the quality on Netflix. I shifted my subscription to Max and narrowed my watching to mostly HBO series. I saw far more movies but with a much narrower scope, driven mainly by dissatisfaction with what was playing in the multiplex. The pace of Marvel’s output was exhausting, while studio output seemed increasingly wedded to big franchise IP. As my theater-going tapered off, I fell in love with two streaming sites that matched my indie sensibilities: The Criterion Channel and Mubi.

Around the same time, I bought an Xbox Series X and signed up for Game Pass, a subscription service with a diverse mix of high quality games. Over the last two years, I have found more specialty game releases that match my tastes. Consequently, gaming took the lion’s share of my free time away from TV. It became my media for laid-back entertainment as my movie and TV selections became more serious territory.

Interestingly, I should be one of the last people following NCT. I straddle a millennial and Gen X age range and generally fall outside the pulse of what’s considered cool or a must-see. I’m also, by nature, a highly selective, opinionated person. Yet my free time has shifted significantly; I wouldn’t be shocked if my tastes moved around again within a few years.

I also know I’m not alone. NCT is fueling the end of monoculture, and practically every entertainment adjacent corporation is undergoing deep, existentialist introspection. Long live the rise of fragmented, niche-focused entertainment. It may not unite everyone, but we’re probably happier for it.