Television

Brendan Greeley has the scoop:

Before she won an Academy Award in 2014 for her role in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o starred in two seasons of the TV drama Shuga. Set first in Nairobi and then in Lagos, Shuga features young, attractive people who sleep with each other. It’s wildly popular and shown on broadcast channels that reach 500 million people, mostly in Africa.

“I would say that it’s an African version of Gossip Girl, but with sexual-health messages weaved through,” says Georgia Arnold, executive director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, which produces the show with the twin goals of promoting safer sex and removing the taboo around HIV. Shuga isn’t a commercial project; it’s sponsored by donors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now in its fourth season, the show recently added a new member to its production team: Eliana La Ferrara, a professor at the University of Bocconi in Italy who specializes in a mix of behavioral and development economics. La Ferrara wasn’t hired for her writing talent. MTV and its donors want to apply a more rigorous approach to make sure Shuga’s message actually creates change where it airs.

The article has numerous other points of interest.

Television: This or That

by on December 22, 2014 at 12:27 pm in Television | Permalink

Angels/demons versus humans: Dominion > Constantine.

Powerful female politician(s) battling corruption and dystopia: Madam Secretary (Tea Leoni) > State of Affairs (Katherine Heigl)

Reality TV entrepreneurs: The Profit > Shark Tank.

Food competition cornucopias Top Chef > MasterChef > Hell’s Kitchen.

There is no great stagnation

by on December 4, 2014 at 5:15 am in Sports, Television, Web/Tech | Permalink

Tekla Perry reports:

To feel the impact of the [hockey] hits at home, TV viewers will need to purchase the $300 ButtKicker (I kid you not), a gadget that attaches to a chair or couch and uses low-frequency audio signals (the company calls it a silent sub-woofer) to shake the furniture in perfect synchrony to the on-screen action.

There is more here, via David Price.

In Matt Dillon’s case, he would often look in the wrong direction. I would tell him that on the screen he would be looking in the right direction, even though it felt wrong when he was shooting it. Trying to explain this to a 14-year-old kid who was already suspicious about the whole thing wasn’t easy. So I’d put a $20 bill on my forehead, and I’d say, “Matt, if you look at this $20 bill, it’s yours when the shot is finished.” Over the course of the movie he made about $200.

There is more (too much more) here, and for the pointer I thank Hugo Lindgren.

The Bloomberg editorial staff says no:

Videos often lack critical context, and studies have repeatedly shown that jurors can be misled by variables such as a film’s angle or focus, which can unduly sway perceptions of guilt. That cuts both ways: Footage of a protester bumping into a cop, devoid of context, could make life much easier on a prosecutor.

Police cameras are also prone to intentional abuse. With mysterious frequency, they seem to accidentally get switched off or malfunction at critical moments. One obvious remedy is to require that cops always keep them on. But that can be counterproductive. Witnesses and victims may be less forthcoming on camera. Attracting competent officers could become harder if their every interaction is recorded. Crucially, officers may simply avoid engaging certain communities, or avoid areas where confrontations are likely, if they know they’re being filmed.

Finally, equipping police with cameras and audio recorders means that they’re constantly conducting surveillance on innocent civilians — and potentially storing it all. Police frequently enter private homes and encounter people in medical emergencies who may not want to be filmed. Some officers may be tempted to record people on the basis of race or religion. And some departments have asserted that the public has no right to see such footage.

In short, a policy intended to empower the public and monitor the police could have precisely the opposite effect.

There is more here, food for thought of course.  Via Adam Minter.

The best films of 2014

by on November 20, 2014 at 1:33 am in Film, Television | Permalink

I found this to be a diffuse year in movies, one where old-style mainline releases lost their grip on a lot of multiplexes and opened up the market for more quality and diversity than we have seen for a long time.  My cinematic self came away from the year quite happy, yet without a clear favorite or a definite sense of which movies will last the ages.  Here are the ones I very much enjoyed or otherwise found stimulating:

The Invisible Woman, the secret love life of Charles Dickens.

Particle Fever, reviewed by me here.

Le Weekend, brutal tale of a vacation and a marriage collapsing.

Under the Skin, Scarlet Johansson in Scotland, to say more would be spoilers.

The Lunchbox, resembles an old-style Hollywood movie about a correspondence romance, yet set among the Indian middle to lower middle class.

Viola, an Argentinean take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, condensed into 65 minutes.

A Touch of Sin, Chinese, brutal, it did not see mainstream release in most cities, I saw it in London.

Godzilla, Straussian review by me here.

Transformers 4, reviewed by me here.

Obvious Child (under the Straussian reading only)

Ilo, Ilo, a movie from Singapore about a Filipina immigrant.  And I had the best dark chocolate gelato I’ve had in America, right after watching it at the Angelika pop-up.

The One I Love, an excellent movie about mind games, love, and commitment.  This was perhaps the most clever movie of the year and also the most underrated.

Skeleton Twins

Lucy, the energy and style overcame the absurdity.  That gives Scarlett Johansson two for the year.

Fury, an old-style WWII movie with Brad Pitt, there is a good David Denby review here.

Interstellar, my review is here, here is one Straussian reading.

Of that whole list, for favorites I would pick Fury as #1, along with Touch of Sin.  Both of them need to be seen on a large screen.

For TV, the Modern Orthodox Jewish dating show Srugim was a clear first, this year I didn’t watch many movies on video but thought Terence Malick’s 2012 To the Wonder had been underrated.

Tivo and Netflix ought to have been made other entertainment more popular and football less popular as a form of entertainment but instead more people are watching football than ever before. Gabriel Rossman asks why?

We can start with a few basic technological shifts, specifically the DVR and broadband internet. Both technologies have the effect that people are watching fewer commercials. From this we can infer that advertisers will have a pronounced preference for “DVR-proof” advertising.

….In practice getting people to watch spot advertising means programming that has to be watched live and in practice that in turn means sports. Thus it is entirely predictable that advertisers will pay a premium for sports. It is also predictable that the cable industry will pay a premium for sports because must-watch ephemera is a good insurance policy against cord-cutting. Moreover, as a straight-forward Ricardian rent type issue, we would predict that this increased demand would accrue to the owners of factor inputs: athletes, team owners, and (in the short-run) the owners of cable channels with contracts to carry sports content. Indeed this has basically all happened….

Here’s something else that is entirely predictable from these premises: we should have declining viewership for sports….If you’re the marginal viewer who ex ante finds sports and scripted equally compelling, it seems like as sports get more expensive and you keep having to watch ads, whereas scripted gets dirt cheap, ad-free, and generally more convenient, the marginal viewer would give up sports, watch last season’s episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix, be blissfully unaware of major advertising campaigns, and pocket the $50 difference between a basic cable package and a $10 Netflix subscription.

…The weird thing is that this latter prediction didn’t happen. During exactly the same period over which sports got more expensive in absolute terms and there was declining direct cost and hassle for close substitutes, viewership for sports increased. From 2003 to 2013, sports viewership was up 27%. Or rather, baseball isn’t doing so great and basketball is holding its own, but holy moly, people love football. If you look at both the top events and top series on tv, it’s basically football, football, some other crap, and more football…. I just can’t understand how when one thing gets more expensive and something else that’s similar gets a lot cheaper and lower hassle, that you see people flocking to the thing that is absolutely more hassle and relatively more money.

It’s a good question. Demographics don’t appear to explain the change. Football skews young, male and black but none of these are undergoing rapid increase. (It’s the aged that are undergoing high growth rates but it’s baseball that appeals more to the old and that isn’t doing great). Fantasy football is big but is it cause or effect?

One possibility is that precisely because there are so few common events to coordinate on, the ones that do coordinate become more important. Why football and not baseball or basketball? Why not? It’s not hard to spin stories but it may also be that random advantages snowballed.

Other theories?

Arnold Kling poses that question., and he writes:

Suppose that when they meet with bankers, for example, Fed officials had to wear cameras and audio recorders, which could be obtained by FOIA requests. Or suppose that IRS officials had to wear cameras, for example, when they wrote emails or engaged in discussions about dealing with tax-exempt groups.

The intended consequences of the camera rule would be, as with having police wear cameras, to make sure that public officials remember that they are being watched and to reduce instances where they are wrongly suspected of acting against the public interest.

What might be the averse unintended consequences of forcing high-level public officials to wear cameras and recording devices when engaged in their ordinary duties?

I believe this practice would induce some offsetting adjustments.  First, public officials would much more frequently act as if they were on television.  We more or less know what that is like.

Second, the unmonitored positions would rapidly become much more powerful.  The monitored positions would become a bit like the British monarchy, namely of great ceremonial importance, and capable of causing a public scandal with ill-thought out remarks, but not the real decision-makers.

Third, the demand for unmonitored “private contractors” would go up.  These contractors would attach themselves to individual politicians, and carry out their will with the outside world, receiving  their instructions as those politicians were initiating their love-making, off camera of course.

The demonstration effect

by on September 12, 2014 at 10:31 am in Current Affairs, Sports, Television | Permalink

Or is it herd behavior?:

Since the video of former NFL player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée out in an elevator leaked, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen an 84% increase in call volume.

There is more here, from Kottke.

…the NFL has reportedly requested its top three choices for the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show — Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Coldplay — to pay the league for the privilege of performing at halftime.

There is more here, and here and here.  For the pointers I thank F.E. Guerra-Pujol and Sheel Mohnot.

A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times.   I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him.  In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture.  An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.

Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper.  Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero.  Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper.  In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.

Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture.  And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms.  The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.

It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.

My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption.  The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base.  Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions.  You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live.  And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before.  Ugh, that is why I stopped going.  NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor.  If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.

That is the recent Israeli TV show — a dramatic comedy of sorts — about the dating lives of Modern Orthodox Jews.  It is interesting to see a professionally made serial where the erotic tension of a date cannot be satisfied, or for that matter further inflamed, not even by a kiss or by a brush of one shoulder against another.  It was once dubbed “No Sex in the City.”  Everyone is in a hurry to do lots of dating and those who are not candidates for marriage are disposed of swiftly.  Quite a bit of lying and double-dealing and rapid switching goes on, yet without sex being present in the background.  There is frequent discrimination against those who are not the right shade of seriousness about their degree of adherence to Judaism.  The men and women who are “just friends” seem to have the best relationships of all, although for some reason they cannot convert that into romantic capital.

You can view it here on Amazon or buy it, or it is on Hulu.  Here is Wikipedia.  Definitely recommended if you are looking for something different, or something interesting about social conservatism, there are many excellent scenes.

Artistic musts

by on June 11, 2014 at 2:33 am in Books, Film, Music, Television, The Arts | Permalink

Not long ago, a group of people were sitting around a New York City Laotian restaurant and a challenge was made.  The challenge was to create a list of a particular kind, drawing upon the wisdom of the groups.  The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this:

…these are MUSTS, not “here’s something I like.”  You aren’t recommending, you are obligating.  That is a much larger responsibility and I urge you to use it with extreme caution.  Also, adding to the list constitutes a commitment to take in the list [emphasis added by TC], with the one caveat.

There is currently no food or visual art on the list.  We briefly discussed adding some food but I think it was going to get out of hand, plus Amazon can’t drone you tacos from Tyler’s favorite gas-station Mexican restaurant.  If the food or visual art is in NYC and readily accessible it could be considered.

Yes, we all obliged ourselves to consume the resulting list.  And what did we put on it?

Primer (movie)
[I am going to remove Upstream Color from the list.  I think it’s a better movie than Primer, and I would watch it again twice back to back right now, but it’s less of a cultural touchstone. ]

The Power Broker (book)

Nature’s Metropolis, especially Chapter 3 (book)

“Blink” (episode of Dr. Who from TV)

Before Sunrise trilogy (movies)

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (music)

The Forever War (book)

A Deepness in the Sky (book)
[Redacted and I agree that the first book, A Fire Upon the Deep, is excellent but not as good as this.  All voices say the third book is a pass]

Prisoners of War (TV series, Israeli)

Loveless (music, 1991 album by My Bloody Valentine)

The Lives of Others (movie)
[there was some controversy around this one]

Thought of You (animated short)

Persona (movie, Ingmar Bergman)

The Godfather (movie)

Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132 (music)

What would you add to such a list?  Of course from this list I do not endorse every pick, but I can report that I do not have “too much extra work to do.”

So says Neal Stephenson:

In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting.

…That [dystopian] environment also works well with movie stars, who make a fine impression in those surroundings and the inevitable plot complications that arise from them. Again, the AVATAR counter-example is instructive. The world was so fascinating and vivid that it tended to draw attention away from the stars.

There is more here, via Morgan Warstler.

In my MRUniversity video on the economics of bundling I argue that bundling raises total surplus and that requiring the Cable TV companies to price by the channel is unlikely to reduce most people’s cable bill (see also Does Cable TV Ripoff People Who Don’t Like Sports?). Pragmatarianism offers an excellent critique. Here is one bit from a longer post worth reading in full:

The flaw in Tabarrok’s logic is that it completely ignores the necessity of determining what the actual demand is for the individual components in the bundle.  For example, when I subscribed to cable…Charter had no idea how much I valued the Discovery Channel.  Neither did the Discovery Channel.  But is my valuation relevant?  According to Tabarrok…it really isn’t.  Uh, what? 

How could the Discovery Channel and Charter and Tabarrok not care what the actual demand is for the Discovery Channel?  In the absence of consumer valuation…how could society’s limited resources be put to their most valuable uses? 

Tabarrok is basically arguing that we don’t need accurate information in order to efficiently allocate resources.  Except, does he really believe that?  Let me consult my magic database…

The most valuable public goods are constantly changing, just as the most valuable private goods are constantly changing.  The signal provided by prices and mobility is therefore of great importance. – Alexander Tabarrok, in The Voluntary City

Huh.  Hmmm.  Is the Discovery Channel a private good?  Yes.  Is its value constantly changing?  Yes.  So…according to Tabarrok…it’s of great importance that the Discovery Channel should have its own price.  But this sure wasn’t what he said in his video. 

An excellent point that was made most forcefully by Ronald Coase in The Marginal Cost Controversy. Coase argued that pricing goods with high fixed cost at marginal cost would generate static efficiency but at the price of dynamic efficiency because we would not be able to say with assurance that the total value of the product exceeded total cost. Similarly we lose some information with bundling, perhaps especially so because marginal cost in this case is zero. With bundling, we know that the total value of the bundle exceeds the total cost but we are less certain that the total value of each bundle component (channel) exceeds the total cost of each component.

But this cannot be the whole story because in another paper, The Nature of the Firm, Coase pointed out that sometimes we choose not to use prices. Firms, for example, are islands of central planning in a market ocean (see Yglesias for a good discussion).

A channel such as HBO is itself a bundle of dramas, comedies and documentaries. Should Girls and Game of Thrones always be priced and sold separately and not through the HBO bundle? HBO certainly learns something from individually priced downloads on iTunes and that information helps HBO to improve its service. But how much is this information worth?

In 2002 should HBO have individually priced episodes of the Sopranos and sold them through AOL?  Individual pricing generates value but it also has costs. Tradeoffs are everywhere. And, to the crux of the issue, if a law had been passed in 2002 requiring HBO to sell The Sopranos on an episode by episode basis would that have resulted in better and more programming at lower prices? I think not. Similarly, I see few reasons to think that welfare would be improved by a law requiring cable TV companies to price by channel.

More generally, the price system is embedded in the larger field of the market economy which includes non-price institutions such as firms; and the market economy is embedded in the larger field of civil society which includes non-profits and non-market institutions such as the family. Economists often focus on the virtues of the price system but that should not blind us to the many virtues and many margins on which a free society operates.