Last Friday, Ancient Aliens course-corrected a bit by backing away from the sci-fi nonsense and returning to a more traditional examination of an exotic location for evidence of prehistoric visitation. They were rewarded by a slight uptick in ratings, rising to 966,000 viewers—up nearly 100,000 from the previous week, but still far below its season and series averages. As far as ratings go, it’s no My Lottery Dream House, which has outdrawn it each week. William Shatner’s The UnXplained continued its series-long run of building on Ancient Aliens’ total number of viewers 18-54, but for the first time its total audience was smaller than that of Ancient Aliens—by 1,000 viewers.
I present these numbers because these two shows are among the most successful fringe programs currently airing new episodes. The less successful shows, like those on the Travel Channel and Destination America, bring in fewer than 600,000 viewers, and most under 500,000. Those on the Gaia streaming platform aren’t broken down by episode, but the entire service has a total subscriber based of fewer than 600,000 people, of whom only a fraction will likely watch any one show. The most successful fringe show of all--Curse of Oak Island—bags an average of 3 million viewers.
These numbers give you a baseline to compare against when reading M.J. Banias’s new Vice article claiming that paranormal programming producers are moving to YouTube and Facebook to find the freedom that cable TV doesn’t allow. According to Banias, producers of UFO and paranormal documentaries don’t want to compromise their artistic vision to fit the requirements of mainstream infotainment, and they also don’t want to pay a distributor to connect them to a cable network.
But there is another issue involved: Viewership. A cable TV series will typically pull in between 350,000 and 650,000 viewers, while one-off specials often do smaller numbers due to the lack of audience investment. A successful “free” YouTube video could receive three to five million views. And more of the commercial revenue from YouTube goes to the filmmaker than a cable TV program.
Get a load, though, of Banias’s final paragraph, which about says it all:
By using this new free model, these indie filmmakers build loyalty within the community which leads, in some anomalous way, to money which funds the next project. Paranormal communities are very much insular subcultures that function within their own ideological frameworks, and authentic content and text is an important facet of their collective narratives and identities. It doesn’t matter if aliens or ghosts are objectively real, only the media that portrays them needs to be.
That’s quite the conclusion, and a rather damning analysis of the codependent relationship between paranormal culture and the media that sustain it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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