For the last two years, the Lear Center has partnered with Zogby International on a survey that asks American citizens about their entertainment preferences and their political beliefs. We were eager to discover the cultural touchstones that united our often divided nation. I was very disappointed to discover how few touchstones there were. One of them was particularly surprising: the TV show House.
In both surveys, in 2007 and 2008, House scored positive marks across all ideological groups, and across every demographic tab, including age, gender, race and religion. When I’d mention this at dinner parties, people who knew the show would be initially stunned and then begin nodding, ‘Yes, yes, I can see that.’
See what? What is it about this show that manages to entertain and engage such a diverse viewership? Why is a show about a misanthropic drug-addicted doctor so appealing?
I think I understand why the show is so popular among doctors: the tricky diagnostic situations are interesting to insiders, and I’ve heard that doctors think that House’s outrageous and unethical behavior is hilarious (no more Dr. Welby for them!) For doctors and regular humans alike, I think Dr. House’s appeal might lie in his difference from the rest of us: heroes these days come in all forms, but the ones who defy expectation, who view the system with contempt and operate with their own set of rules, are often regarded as the only ones who can save us.
Our finding about House was bolstered by some international data released this summer. Eurodata announced that House was the world’s most watched TV show.
Now, calculating which show is most popular in the world is a very tricky business: Eurodata did it by adding together ratings for a single episode of a show in the 66 countries in which it aired. House beat out two CSIs (Las Vegas and Miami), Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty and Monk with 81.8 million viewers of one episode. The potential audience for House in those 66 countries? 1.8 billion.
Needless to say, this show, a solid performer for Fox, is a rare example of a scripted TV show that’s holding its own in a fractured media landscape chock-full of tawdry reality programming. It should have come as no surprise, then, that Fox was willing to break the rules and develop a guerilla marketing campaign around the launch of its sixth season.
Season 6? Guerilla marketing campaigns are usually (always!) deployed for new kids in the line-up: shows with no following whatsoever that need to hit the ground running in order to stay on the schedule for a few weeks. To commit marketing money to an unconventional campaign for a show this long in the tooth is unprecedented.
I noticed the guerilla marketing campaign all over my slightly tattered Hollywood neighborhood: I am very familiar with the caduceus, a symbol for the medical profession, because we use one in the logo of our Hollywood, Health & Society program. But the House caduceus was different: instead of two snakes on a staff, it was two snakes on a cane. Was this a bizarre reference to the cult film Snakes on a Plane? If so, this was a particularly rich visual pun, and therefore pretty darn atypical for a TV marketing campaign. It wasn’t until I saw a Hollywood Reporter article that I discovered that Hugh Laurie himself was actually responsible for the campaign (clever man).
I didn’t see any of the five-second subliminal ads on Fox (nor the vintage ambulance emblazoned with the symbol), but just hearing about this creeped me out . . . and, well, made me want to see the show.
According to the Hollywood Reporter article, some people online who saw the symbol without context suspected it had something to do with health care reform. Of course half the online conversations that I saw about it focused on whether viral marketing campaigns like this really work. Guess what: if you’re talking about it online, it’s working.
Any marketing campaign that makes you think twice about a product has managed to engage you, and a show like House has proven time and again that it’s capable of doing that, even across 66 national borders. One reason our HH&S team works with House to make its medical storylines as accurate as possible is because of the show’s success connecting with diverse audiences around the world, many of whom could use some accurate health information.
But the show’s appeal goes beyond even that. I discovered a recent press release from FashionableCanes.com which announced that it was stocking up on its replica Dr. Gregory House M.D. walking canes. Turns out they get swamped with orders every time a new season begins. Their biggest seller? House’s racy ‘Flame Cane.’