"It's not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Doug - it's our job to raise it."
—President Jed Bartlet
, The West Wing
When applied for fiction, the term Lowest Common Denominator means an execution that is designed to appeal to as many people at once as possible.
There are varying interpretations on what this implies. In an egalitarian interpretation, it might be an admirable potential of art; generalized stories that most people can relate to. Stories that all human beings, or at least members of the targeted demographics
, can understand in relation to their own lives. Many tropes came into fiction as fully-formed repeating patterns from real life, colored through a dramatic lens. Also, if we think of media as communication between the creator and the audience, the most successful communication would be the one that is understood by the most people.
From a more elitist point of view, if we assume that a significant percentage of Viewers Are Morons
, it can be used to mean a work that is made to appeal only to them, instead of
more "worthy" audiences. A show that is marketed to "Joe Sixpack" and all his family, out there
in what the suits in New York and L.A.
usually call Flyover Country
. For maximum profitability, take out everything from the show that anyone more educated, or more devoted to the show, might appreciate, and reduce it to its most shallow parts that even they will understand. For anime
is used to appeal to the male audience.
The name of this trope comes from basic fractional mathematics. If we metaphorically imagine individual numbers as the minds of the audience members, some larger and some smaller, the Lowest Common Denominator is the show itself, a number that is calculated by taking all of them into account. If you would think too hard about the metaphor, it would be heavily in favor of the egalitarian interpretation: after all, in mathematics, the LCD itself, the product of a multiplication, tends to be a large number, almost like in The Sons and the Spears
metaphor, the result of including everyone is more than the sum of its parts.
Its other common interpretation was probably intended to evoke the 'Greatest Common Factor' concept, a number that is trimmed until it's small enough that it can be used to divide any of the other chosen numbers with it, just like mainstream works are trimmed for Joe Sixpack, but ironically, its users just demonstrated the shallowness that they intended to reference with it, by quickly assuming that any calculation with the words "common" and "low" in it must have a "weak" result.
This could also apply to how the current crop of "hardcore gamers
" look upon casual games
. Or, alternately, how "hardcore" games
appear to everyone else.
The trope, on the other hand, is Older Than Steam
. William Shakespeare
was a master of combining Genius Bonus
and Lowest Common Denominator.
Not to be confused with The Lowest Cosmic Denominator
. Or Liquid Crystal Display, for that matter. Or The Common Denominator
, the British quiz show on Channel 4.