As a creative executive in television marketing, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say: “We’re not curing cancer here. We work in television.”

True, of course, but this trivialization can blind us to television’s full range of impact.

Television content can, at the individual level, offer a break from the stress and non-stop mental dialogue of everyday life and serve as a comforting backdrop while we’re getting other things done. But it also serves important social functions, increasingly so. For one thing, it provides a platform for the emergence of new communities – fan communities.

Fans come together through their shared appreciation for a show (or genre) and the values that underlie it, and they find a sense of connection and belonging as a result.

Interestingly, this is happening in an age of decreasing religiosity in the U.S. While the American appetite for religion’s institutional moral ideologies may be waning, our need to feel connected to others who share our values is not, and the increase we are seeing in fandom and fan communities seems to reflect this.

Moreover, the increasing complexity of much of our television content helps us collectively navigate the rapidly changing world around us. And it’s not just educational or pro-social content that’s doing it.

Whether it’s a scripted drama that invites us to empathize with morally ambiguous characters or a comedy that derives its humor by reframing rather than reinforcing stereotypes, our television content helps us process some of our most active cultural tensions and anxieties. It’s a form of cultural therapy, giving us a chance to safely explore the issues of our day. Consider some of the dominant themes on television today – human diversity, technological change, secular heroism, changing power structures. Whether a show contextualizes these themes in a fantasy world, historical or future era, niche subculture, or modern reality, the issues are alive for us in the here and now.

So what would it mean for the television industry to embrace its roles as community creator and cultural therapist? Certainly, many content creators already do. But on the business side, we rarely consider these roles, much less craft strategies around them. If we truly embraced them, how would we market differently? What new products, services and experiences would we create? As an anthropologist in marketing, it’s my job to help my clients tackle such questions and identify opportunities at this social and cultural level.

In my years working in the commercial world, I’ve rarely seen my anthropological perspective more applicable than it is now to the entertainment industry. With increasingly empowered viewers and traditional business models striving to adapt, it’s a good time for new modes of thinking. Anthropological thinking seems particularly apt given its focus on people and dynamic cultural realities. Entertainment may be an industry in flux, but our human need for shared storytelling isn’t going anywhere; it’s only the way we monetize it that’s changing.

Susan Kresnicka is an anthropologist and head of research and insights at Troika, Hollywood’s largest branding and integrated marketing company. She’s speaking on the panel “Powering Business Through the Lens of Culture” at PromaxBDA The Conference 2015 on Thursday, June 11 at 3:30 pm. For more information please consult

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