Category: Television

Television gets you to spend money

Especially on cars (and other durable goods):

I compare growth in retail sales between areas with and without local TV service over the unanticipated Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Freeze, which halted the licensing of new TV stations from 1948–52. I find three results that corroborate TV’s long-attributed role in American consumerism. First, during the Freeze, total retail sales in counties with TV access increased by 3–4% more on average than in counties without access. Second, the effect of TV was concentrated in the automobile sector, which alone accounted for a third of the total difference.

Here is the full paper by Woojin Kim, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The new equilibrium, solved for

Ticket sales for Chris Rock’s comedy shows have reportedly spiked since Sunday night.

Live event ticketing site TickPick sold more tickets to see Chris Rock overnight than it had in the past month combined, according to a tweet from the company Monday.

Rock is set to perform standup at Boston’s Wilbur Theater on Wednesday. On March 18, the cheapest tickets were sold for $46, but had increased to $411 by Monday, according to TickPick’s public relations representative Kyle Zorn.

Here is the full story.  Now solve for the next one!

Surrogates

Surrogates is a 2009 science-fiction movie starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike and Ving Rhames. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s rated at a measly 37% (tomatometer) and 38% (audience). When I first saw it I thought it was underrated and a recent re-watch cemented that conclusion.

Surrogates is about a slightly future world in which people predominantly interact with one another through surrogates, i.e. humanoid robots controlled from home. The premise should be familiar today in the Zoom, Metaverse, avatar age in a way it wasn’t in 2009. Surrogates touches on trans issues (your surrogate can be a different gender), the meaning of identity, age, aging and youth, the advantages of surrogates for creating low crime and even eliminating infectious diseases (good prediction!) and the sense of anxiety and fear we feel when interacting in the real world after becoming comfortable with surrogates and the sense of unrealness of interacting with avatars.

The world of surrogates is threatened when for the first time ever a human operator is murdered by “killing” their surrogate. Willis and Mitchell are detectives trying to solve the mystery and track down the killer. The film noir aspect isn’t Chinatown but it follows the formula and follows it well. A luddite cult is involved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Surrogates didn’t do well is that it’s low-budget. At the same time as this world has advanced robotics the cars are purely circa 2009! The surrogates are played by the same actors as the operators with only makeup and hair pieces to indicate the differences but in fact the make-up and surrogate acting is very well done! The contrast between young, perfectly coiffed and flattened surrogate Bruce Willis and the old, bloody, beaten but expressive Bruce Willis is well done. The ending is excellent.

A masterpiece? No. But Surrogates is an underrated gem. It’s available now on HBO.

surrogates | Where to Stream and Watch | Decider

How to find good TV shows

Chris asks:

You’ve written a lot about your reading habits in the past, but I’m curious to know more about how you find and watch TV shows. You’ve mentioned before that you watch very little TV (in explaining your productivity), and yet you speak highly of the shows you do watch. Do you have any strategies to find good TV, how to watch television “well”,  how to avoid getting sucked in to mediocre TV, etc.? And, I’d be curious to know what specific shows you think are worth the time sink to watch.

All of this comes from my somewhat-conflicting desires 1.) To not waste time and 2.) To enjoy the best art there is, in all of its forms.

Here are my rather brutal answers, noting they probably are not helpful for most people:

1. Most TV shows are not good.  The key problems are that too much quality scripting is required, and that the incentives are to try to get the show extended for another season.  Plus too much of the audience “just wants something to watch.”

2. Most TV shows that your smart friends tell you to watch also are not good.  See #1.

3. You should almost always watch a movie rather than a TV show.  If you have to, watch the movie in hour or half-hour segments.  Movies are better and smarter, at least if you can figure out which are the quality films.  But that is not so hard, as standard critical opinion does OK there.

4. “The Golden Age of TV” doesn’t change any of this, though Hollywood movies have become worse, due to tent pole franchises and pressures for serialization, which give them some of the problems of television shows.  At the margin, almost everyone should be watching more foreign films.  Do you really know them all?  How well do you know the best of African cinema?  Iranian cinema?  And so on.

5. I will try a TV show if two people I know, in the very top tier of smarts, recommend it.  Even then I usually don’t like it.  I thus infer there is at least a single dimension where I differ strongly from just about all my friends.

6. Could I name twenty TV shows that I think are worth watching, relative to the best movies you haven’t seen and the best books you haven’t read?  Not sure.  Attention is that which is scarce.  But it shouldn’t be.  Just pay better attention and read that book or watch that movie.  There is also plenty on YouTube that beats TV shows, and if you are old you may not consume much YouTube content at all.

7. For sure, there are fifteen TV shows worth watching, but you really need to have very very strong filters.  Whatever your filters may be, make them stronger.  Don’t trust those friends of yours!

8. By this point, you are probably not very interested in knowing which are those fifteen shows.

My Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

Excellent stuff, we had so much fun we kept on going for an extra half hour, as he decided to ask me a bunch of questions about economics and personal finance.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.

Whew!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.

You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.

COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.

And:

KLOSTERMAN: …this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.

An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.

But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.

This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture…

And:

KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.

COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.

KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?

Recommended.  And again, here is Chuck’s new book The Nineties.

Netflix economics and the future of Netflix

Ted Gioia writes:

Netflix’s market share has been declining steadily, and has now fallen below 50%. One estimate claims that the company’s share of consumers fell more than 30% in a single year. Netflix’s recent quarterly report was a disaster, spurring a share sell-off. You could easily conclude that “Netflix’s long awaited funeral is finally here”—as Bloomberg hinted in its blunt assessment of the results.

Of course the company is still worth quite a bit, so my own view is no more or no less optimistic than what the market indicates.  Still, it is worth asking what the equilibrium here looks like.  There is also AppleTV, Disney, Showtime, HBOMax, Hulu, AmazonPrime, and more.  I don’t think it quite works to argue that we all end up subscribing to all of them, so where are matters headed?  I see a few options:

1. Netflix and its competitors keep on producing new shows until all the rents are exhausted and those companies simply earn the going rate of return on capital, with possible ongoing rents on longstanding properties of real value (e.g., older Disney content).  These scenarios could involve either additional entry, or more (and better?) shows from the incumbent producers.

2. Due to economies of scale, one or two of those companies will produce the best shows and buy up the best content.  We end up with a monopoly or duopoly in the TV streaming market, noting there still would be vigorous competition from other media sources.

3. The companies are allowed to collude in some manner.  One option is they form a consortium where you get “all access” for a common fee, divvied out in proper proportion.  Would the antitrust authorities allow this?  Or might the mere potential for antitrust intervention makes this a collusive solution but one without a strict monopolizing, profit-maximizing price?

4. The companies are allowed to collude in a more partial and less obvious manner.  Rather than a complete consortium, some of the smaller companies will evolve into “feeder” services for one or two of the larger companies.  Those smaller companies will rely increasingly more on the feeder contracts and increasingly less on subscription revenue.  This perhaps resembles the duopoly solution analytically, though a head count would show more than two firms in the market.

It seems to me that only the first scenario is very bad for Netflix.  That said, it seems that along all of these paths short-run rent exhaustion is going on, and that short-run rent exhaustion is costly for Netflix.  They keep on having to pump out “stuff” to keep viewer attention.  It doesn’t matter that new shows are cheap, because as long as the market profits are there the “bar” for retaining customers will continue to grow.  Very few of their shows are geared to produce long-term customer loyalty toward that show – in contrast, people are still talking about Columbo!

Putting the law aside, which economic factors determine which solution will hold?  My intuition is that there are marketing economies of scale, but production diseconomies of scale, as the media companies grow too large and sclerotic.  So maybe that militates in favor of scenario #4?  That to me also suggests an “at least OK” future for Netflix.  The company would continue its investments and marketing and an easy to use website, while increasingly going elsewhere for superior content.

WWBTS?

My Israel-only Conversation with the excellent Russ Roberts

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is the CWT summary:

In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.

We didn’t shy away from the tough stuff, here is one question:

COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.

Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?

Do read Russ’s answer!  (Too long to excerpt.)  And:

COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of WarThe Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?

COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

We then consider the Israeli topic at hand.  Interesting throughout, a very good dialogue.

What to Watch

Some things I have watched, some good, some not so good.

Cobra Kai on Netflix: A reliable, feel good show, well plotted. It plays like they mapped each season in advance covering all permutations and combinations of friends turning into enemies and enemies turning into friends. Do I really need five seasons of the same thing? No. But I still watch. Popcorn material.

Maid on Netflix: I appreciated the peek into the difficulties of managing the welfare system and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps when your family is pulling you down. Margaret Qualley (Andie MacDowell’s daughter who plays her mother on the show) has an odd charisma. It’s been noted that she is an impossibly perfect mother. Less noted is that she is a terrible wife, a poor daughter to her father and a bad girlfriend. Everyone deserves a break is the message we get from this show, except men. Still, it was well done.

The Last Duel is one of Ridley’s best. Superb, subtle acting from Jodie Comer–deserving of Oscar. Slightly too long but there are natural breaking points for at home watching. N.B. given the times it can’t be interpreted ala Rashômon as many people suggest but rather the last word is final which reduces long term interest but I still liked it.

Alex Rider on Amazon: It’s in essence a James Bond origin story. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will. I am told the books are also good for YA.

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible: A mountain documentary following Nimsdai Purja as he and his team attempt to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months. In many ways, the backstory–Purja is a Gurka and British special forces solider–is even more interesting. It does say something that most people don’t know his name.

The Eternals on Disney: Terrible. Didn’t finish it. A diverse cast with no actual diversity. Kumail Nanjiani, Dinesh from Silicon Valley, plays his super hero like Dinesh from Silicon Valley. Karun, the Indian sidekick, is the most authentic person in the whole ensemble. Aside from being boring it’s also dark, not emotionally but visually. It doesn’t matter the scene, battle scenes, outdoor scenes, kitchen table scenes–all so dark they are literally hard to see.

Wheel of Time: It’s hard to believe they spent a reported $10 million per episode on this clunker. The special effects were weak, the editing was bad, the mood-setting and world building were poor. The actors have no chemistry. Why would anyone be interested in Egwene who shows no spunk, intelligence or charisma? For better in this genre is The Witcher on Netflix.

The French Dispatch (theatres and Amazon): I loved it. Maybe the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson movies, so be prepared. Every scene has something interesting going on and there’s a new scene every few minutes. A send-up and a love story to the New Yorker. Lea Seydoux is indeed, shall we say, inspiring.

Samsung markets in everything

What would Marshall McLuhan say?:

Staring at your non-fungible tokens on a smartphone or laptop screen is fine and all, but why not remind everyone who visits your home of the money you spent on digital art NFTs by showcasing them on your TV screen? Somehow we’re in a world where that’s about to become reality: Samsung says it’s planning extensive support for NFTs beginning with its 2022 TV lineup.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

*The Many Saints of Newark*

Much better than its reviews, though the drama only works for those with an intricate knowledge of The Sopranos proper, and perhaps of Northern New Jersey as well.  The performances are uniformly excellent and the historical detail remarkable (where did they get that Bamberger’s delivery truck?  The store disappeared in 1986.)  The younger versions of the characters are simply uncannily accurate, though perhaps young Carmela struck me as a bit too modern looking?  I view the core theme as one of unfreedom and determinism.  As a viewer, you see the characters as unfree because you already know what is going to happen to them.  As the story unfolds, you see how much they are unfree in a more fundamental sense as well.  No one talks conceptually, except for the uncle in prison, who also is the only free person in the story.  Recommended, but probably for the dedicated only.  To really follow and understand the film, you need to have all the images of the earlier Sopranos scenes, including settings and not just characters, filed away in your mind.

More on US vs. UK television shows

From Alex Griffiths:

In a recent article you wrote about the historic difference between British and American panel shows and I wanted to share my theory.

I think that there are two factors at play in the difference between British and American panel shows. 1. Market size, 2. Culture. 3. What is funny in US vs. UK.

1. Historically the small number of domestic television stations that the British television market could make profitable (until very recently 5 at most) meant that unlike in America there was limited choice and further the talent pool of people working on the programmes was also small and so the people making the programmes had both the ability due to being smaller to be relatively nimble to changes in culture and also had little choice but to watch the selection they were picking and so had an incentive to make the programming interesting to watch.

By contrast in America with its comparable size it was easier to fund lots of movies for different audiences but when it comes to television it was more difficult for major networks to necessarily change direction (a TV schedule is zero sum whereas you can simply add new films to a cinema selection) and additionally in American TV you could easily hate what you do and still watch something else on a different channel.

2. Combined with this is a different attitude towards comedy and television culture. In America TV seems to be more “working class” as a medium and aimed more at making people feel good- e.g Friends, Rosanne, Cheers, and even Frasier that most British of American TV is aimed at laughs as Frasier has already made it, whereas in the UK television has been more middle class orientated and about betterment and self improvement even if done with a comic twist. Almost every top British show ever made is about people trying to go upwards economically, politically or socially, e.g. Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, Fawley Towers, Yes Minister, Porridge.

3. An example of the difference between British and American comedy which I found quite a good summary (I can’t remember who said it), imagines a comedy sketch where a musician is playing a guitar badly and a man comes up and smashes it over the musician’s head. The contention is that an American comic would want to be the one smashing the guitar whereas a British comic would want to be the one getting hit with the guitar. America, the ultimate immigrant nation goes for obvious and broad comedy so everyone can understand whereas the British, comparably more dominated by class distinctions and still a lot more culturally homogeneous, goes for the joke about subverting the norm which of necessity requires an understanding about norms in a society.

I just want to finally add that whilst historically I would say that British panel shows have been better than American ones I think the Internet and its rise in a wider selection of shows, as well as a shift towards just raw viewership numbers as the dominant motivator for television programmes, has meant that there has been a decline in the quality of British television programming and that with every passing year it seems more and more like the US market which is sad but I’m not sure reversible without a UK television subscription service which can afford to raise its ambitions.

Why are American talk shows so much worse than British ones?

Sam Enright emails me:

My girlfriend is American, and she’s been struck by how the UK panel shows – QI, Would I Lie to You, 8 Out of 10 Cats – are so much better than the American ones, and play to the lowest common denominator less. There don’t seem to be a lot of panel shows in America per se, but the closest thing is late night shows, and so far as I can tell, they’re all terrible. A lot of whining about politics. Previously good comedians like Trevor Noah or John Oliver seem to become remarkably un-funny upon becoming hosts of US shows. Yet America has no deficit in producing quality films and TV in general. Do you have a theory about this? Are there culture-specific cues that I’m not picking up on? Is the American elite more competitive and therefore more politically unified, and does this filter down to there being a remarkably narrow range of views you can implicitly endorse in American comedy? Is it all just that the BBC has good taste in what it funds?

I don’t watch enough television to have an informed opinion, but my general intuition is often that the American market has all sorts of hidden corners and niches, many of them stupid, so often there are especially high returns to “selling out.”  In Britain, maybe it is more the case that “the TV customers you see are the TV customers you get”?  This hypothesis, while it can lead to cultural dumbing down, is also consistent with the U.S. market as especially good for new product introduction, and not just because population is high.  Any opinions on the TV issue?

U.S.A. fact of the day

According to one recent measure, ninety-three of the top one hundred American television programs watched live across a single year have been sports related.  More people watched the Super Bowl than the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, and Tonys combined.

It is for this reason that I find it puzzling when some people simply are not interested in sports at all.  I find the “sports are just stupid” attitude defensible (though it is not my view), but that would in turn seem to make sports all the more interesting.

That is from Jonah Lehrer’s Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, a Solution, just published by Simon and Schuster.

Elon on SNL

He started by declaring that he speaks in a monotone and “has Asperger’s,” was funny and self-assured during the rest of the introduction, brought his mom on stage, and later played a variety of roles, including murderer, awkward guy at a party, a Mario character (Wario), and an Icelandic TV producer.  He played a financial analyst repeatedly asked to explain “What is Dogecoin?” (Dogecoin was down significantly during the evening).  The final skit was a gold-mining motif, something like “why are we panning for this gold when we can just invent our own currency?”  Elon’s plan was to dig a tunnel to get at the bad guys.  I enjoyed his line: “And I like self-driving horses, which are just…horses.”

He was funnier than any of the professional comedians.

Is there anything in American business history even vaguely comparable to this event?