Category: Television

Not your grandpa’s talent show

Hosted by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, the four-hour entrepreneurial talent show had all the production values of The Apprentice.

But the glitzy televised extravaganza, in which 10 contestants battled for $1m in prize money in front of a boisterous audience, took place neither in the US nor China. The action unfolded instead on a stage in Ghana, the first of what is set to be an Africa-wide annual contest as one of China’s best known businessmen scours the continent for younger versions of himself…

Mr Ma came up with the idea of the $1m prize — and the Africa Netpreneur television show to go with it — after meeting young Kenyan entrepreneurs on his first trip to the continent as a special adviser to the UN agency Unctad in 2017…

The Netpreneur show is due to be broadcast in mid-December on two channels with a pan-African presence, South Africa’s DStv and StarTimes, a Chinese media company. During the filming, Mr Ma sat on a raised dais next to three fellow judges: Strive Masiyiwa, the billionaire Zimbabwean founder of telecoms and media company Econet Wireless, Ibukun Awosika, chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, and Joe Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba.

Where are the Smothers Brothers?  Here is the full David Pilling FT story.

Television facts of the day

There were 496 scripted TV shows made in the US last year, more than double the 216 series released in 2010. In the past eight years the number of shows grew by 129 per cent, while the US population rose only 6 per cent. The trend is set to deepen, as groups like AT&T’s WarnerMedia commission dozens of new series to convince people to sign up for their streaming services.

…In the span of about six months, Disney, Apple, AT&T and Comcast are launching new streaming services, asking people to pay nothing for some services or up to $15 a month to watch their libraries of films and shows.

Here is more from Anna Nicolaou and Alex Barker at the FT.  Yes, you might be tempted to short this sector and perhaps I am too.  Still, another possible part of the equilibrium adjustment is simply that the market swallows the content and factor prices fall, a’la music streaming.  That would be one way to get all of those costly special effects out of so many movies.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

Lie to Me

From A Test of the Micro Expressions Training Tool:

Image result for lie to meThe theory behind micro‐expressions posits that when people attempt to mask their true emotional state, expressions consistent with their actual state will appear briefly on their face. Thus, while people are generally good at hiding their emotions, some facial muscles are more difficult to control than others and automatic displays of emotion will produce briefly detectable emotional “leakage” or micro‐expressions (Ekman, 1985). When a person does not wish to display his or her true feelings s/he will quickly suppress these expressions. Yet, there will be an extremely short time between the automatic display of the emotion and the conscious attempt to conceal it, resulting in the micro‐expression(s) that can betray a true feeling and according to theory, aid in detecting deception.

…The METT Advanced programme, marketed by the Paul Ekman Group (2011), coined an “online training to increase emotional awareness and detect deception” and promoted with claims that it “… enables you to better spot lies” and “is meant for those whose work requires them to evaluate truthfulness and detect deception—such as police and security personnel” (Paul Ekman Group, METT Advanced‐Online only, para. 2). The idea that micro‐expression recognition improves lie detection has also been put forth in the scientific literature (Ekman, 2009; Ekman & Matsumoto, 2011; Kassin, Redlich, Alceste, & Luke, 2018) and promoted in the wider culture. One example of this is its use as a focal plot device in the crime drama television series Lie to Me, which ran for three seasons (Baum, 2009). Though a fictional show, Lie to Me was promoted as being based on the research of Ekman. Ekman himself had a blog for the show in which he discussed the science of each episode (Ekman, 2010). Micro‐expression recognition training is not only marketed for deception detection but, more problematically, is actually used for this purpose by the United States government. Training in recognising micro‐expressions is part of the behavioural screening programme, known as Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) used in airport security (Higginbotham, 2013; Smith, 2011; Weinberger, 2010). The SPOT programme deploys so‐called behaviour detection officers who receive various training in detecting deception from nonverbal behaviour, including training using the METT (the specific content of this programme is classified, Higginbotham, 2013). Evidently, preventing terrorists from entering the country’s borders and airports is an important mission. However, to our knowledge, there is no research on the effectiveness of METT in improving lie detection accuracy or security screening efficacy.

…Our findings do not support the use of METT as a lie detection tool. The METT did not improve accuracy any more than a bogus training protocol or even no training at all. The METT also did not improve accuracy beyond the level associated with guessing. This is problematic to say the least given that training in the recognition of micro‐expressions comprises a large part of a screening system that has become ever more pervasive in our aviation security (Higginbotham, 2013; Weinberger, 2010).

Note that the online training failed but micro-expressions are real and better, more intensive training or maybe an AI could do better though on that last I wouldn’t accept the hype.

Hat tip the excellent Rolf Degen on twitter.

Chernobyl model this

Now, in a strange turn more than three decades after the meltdown, the exclusion area around Chernobyl is gaining a following as a tourism destination, apparently propelled by the popularity of a TV mini-series about the blast that was broadcast in the United States and Britain last month.

The mini-series, HBO’s “Chernobyl,” fictionalizes the events in the aftermath of the explosion and fire at the plant’s Unit 4 nuclear reactor. It has been one of the highest-rated shows on the IMDB charts.

“The number of visitors increases every day, every week, by 30, 40, now almost 50 percent,” said Victor Korol, the head of SoloEast, a company that gives tours of the site. “People watch TV, and they want to go there and see the place, how it looks.”

Here is the full NYT story by Iliana Magra.  Not long ago I predicted, half tongue in cheek, that the Chernobyl show could end up making nuclear power more rather than less popular…

Fleabag and Killing Eve

Fleabag (Amazon) and Killing Eve (BBC America) are two television shows written by the absolutely brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge who also stars in the former. I tweeted:

Image result for fleabagFleabag 2nd Season even better than 1st. An indelible portrait of toxic femininity. No accident that the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge also wrote Killing-Eve featuring a different female killer but in male style and fantasy form rather than the more mature & realistic Fleabag.

Not everyone understood the tweet and some were confused. How could Fleabag be about toxic femininity when Waller-Bridge is a feminist? Fleabag is misunderstood because people try to frame it in terms of victimhood and Waller-Bridge is having none of that. Her method for illustrating the equality of the sexes is to show that women can be just as evil as men. Fleabag is much darker and more religious and mystical than most people realize.

I have written somewhat elliptically in what follows so as not to give much away but….mild spoiler warning. Herewith some observations.

Killing Eve features the serial killer, Villanelle. In one episode, she kills her lover using perfume. What could be a better metaphor for toxic femininity than that? Although they appear very different, Villanelle and Fleabag have much in common. Both of them, for example, are sociopaths.

Fleabag says as much herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” But even more telling is that the other characters tell us that Fleabag is a sociopath. “You know exactly what you are doing,” “You only do what you want,” “You know what you are going to do,” or words to that effect are said many times. To understand Fleabag the show, you need to take these words seriously and backcast them to the events that happened before Season One. Namely, in a fit of sexual jealousy, Fleabag decided that if she can’t have what she wants then no one will. She wills it. It happens.

In doubt? Consider the scene at the funeral of Fleabag’s mother. Is she upset? Distraught? In tears? No, she looks radiant. She is more beautiful, more composed, more at peace on the day of her mother’s funeral than any day before and everyone tells her so. “I have never seen you looks so good,” “You look glorious,” and my favorite, “Gosh, grief really agrees with you.” Her body tells the truth. It is a mistake to wish this away.

In Season One, Fleabag is only just realizing the power that her sociopathy and sexual charisma bestow upon her and at first she is frightened. By S2, however, she is in command and we see her using her intense sexual charisma to bend men to her will. Men worship her and she treats them like objects and playthings. In one case, she literally has her boyfriend on his hands and knees scrubbing the floors. It’s hilarious.

FB is not the only example of toxic femininity in the series. The stepmother is an older version of Fleabag who also uses her sexual charisma to get what she wants. She has Fleabag’s father by the balls and to prove it she hangs them on the wall (I am not making this up). Fleabag cannot defeat the passive-aggressive stepmother because her sexual powers work only over men (notice the Kristen Scott Thomas scene and recall that FB didn’t get what she really wanted pre Season One). The stepmother is in fact a kind of witch who uses words to destroy those around her even though the words themselves are pleasant sounding. The stepmother also fashions a voodoo doll, a statue of Fleabag’s mother–whom she has replaced–that is notably beheaded.

The real plot of Season Two is that Fleabag is bored by how easy it is to control men and so she goes after bigger game. Can she top her pre-Season One triumph? Can she steal a man from God? Priest and witch enter into a battle of wits and wills. The Priest thinks he is going to exorcise her demons. This is a feminist show. He doesn’t.

The priest is a very interesting character. He is specifically introduced as a new priest, i.e. a new church, and he is young and cool and sexy. He is also a complete failure. Is Waller-Bridge, who was schooled by nuns, saying the new church fails or the church in general? Either way, despite being celestially warned, the priest fails God, he fails the Church and, perhaps most of all, he fails Fleabag. To be saved, Fleabag needed to find an incorruptible man, one who truly believes that there are bigger things than sex and dominance and worship of self. Instead, she finds in the church nothing but hypocrisy. In choosing sex over God and devotion to others, the Priest violates a sacred trust just as the pedophile priests violated their sacred trust (and Waller-Bridge makes clear the family resemblance). It does not take much imagination to see that the Priest will soon meet his fate in an alcoholic stupor (many hints are given).

In the final scene Fleabag walks into the sunset contentedly, like a talented Mrs. Ripley. The priest leaves in the opposite direction pursued by a demon symbolizing his failure to guard his flock.

Addendum: By the way, we never learn Fleabag’s name. She is a temptress who kills. Thus, another good name for Fleabag would be Killing Eve.

Measurement for everything

One of the most widely used screenplay programs in Hollywood has a new tool to help with gender equality and inclusion.

In an update announced Thursday, Final Draft — software that writers use to format scripts — said it will now include a proprietary “Inclusivity Analysis” feature, allowing filmmakers “to quickly assign and measure the ethnicity, gender, age, disability or any other definable trait of the characters,” including race, the company said in a statement.

It also will enable users to determine if a project passes the Bechdel Test, measuring whether two female characters speak to each other about anything other than a man. The Final Draft tool, a free add-on, was developed in collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University, which has been at the forefront of studying the underrepresentation of women on screen.

Here is the full Melena Ryzik NYT story.

My Conversation with Margaret Atwood

She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening:

COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.

COWEN: How so?

ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.

[laughter]

ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.

[laughter]

COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”

ATWOOD: Yeah.

COWEN: You think that’s still true?

ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.

The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —

COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.

ATWOOD: You think?

COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.

ATWOOD: Did it?

COWEN: Center of manufacturing.

ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?

COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —

And from her:

ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”

And a question from me:

COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?

In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.

Cable TV really does matter for political outcomes

This is only one estimate, from Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, but nonetheless it is backed by a plausible identification stragegy and this is very interesting research:

We find that in a hypothetical world without Fox News but with no other changes, the Republican vote share in the 2000 election would have been about half a percentage point lower. By 2008, the effect of there being no Fox News rises to more than six percentage points – a result of the channel’s increasing viewership and increasingly conservative slant over this period.

Unfortunately, that is followed by a real clunker of a paragraph:

All of these results suggest that citizens and regulators have reason to be concerned about media consolidation and the non-market objectives of media owners. A hypothetical monopolist controlling all three channels and interested in electoral influence would have enormous power over election outcomes.

How many things are wrong in those two sentences?  How can a profession supposedly devoted to rigor allow such sloppy thought to continue?  Here are a few of my objections:

1. The real story in this paper is about Fox News, and Fox — whether you like it or not — is very much an alternative to the mainstream media approach.  If you don’t like Fox, you might have preferred the “bad old days” of three dominant and pretty similar networks.

2. Do the authors have any argument that “the non-market objectives of media owners” are bad?  No.  In fact, there is a longstanding literature that “the market objectives of media owners” are bad, whether you agree or not.  Do they really just mean to say “I don’t like Fox News”?  Just say it.  Don’t worry, I don’t think most authors, especially of media studies, are objective to begin with.

3. Don’t the results suggest we should perhaps be worried about polarized news rather than consolidated news ownership?

4. Is it possible to consolidate news ownership in a world with so many cable channels and so many news alternatives to cable?  I strongly doubt this, but in any case it is not something the authors have shown.  Instead, they have shown that a renegade news channel can rise to a position of great political influence.

5. Might it have been better simply to have written?: “I am really worried that Rupert Murdoch, in the absence of regulation, could buy up all the news channels and implement political outcomes I do not like.”  That is an entirely coherent argument, and I wonder if it isn’t what the authors were getting at but couldn’t bring themselves to write it and thus were forced into the most illogical two sentences I have read this week.

6. By the way, Murdoch owns a lot of media properties and most of them have political stances, and most of all tones, fairly different from that of Fox News.  Worth a ponder.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman is skeptical of the basic result.

What I’ve Been Watching

Image result for bohemian rhapsody filmBohemian Rhapsody—you already know the plot and it’s a tad long but the music is great and Rami Malek is fabulous as Freddie Mercury. The movie culminates with a virtually shot-by-shot recreation of the legendary Queen performance at Live Aid, considered by many to the greatest live performance in all of rock and roll. A little puzzling why they didn’t use the original. Worth seeing in the theater, if you don’t have a home theater.

Crazy Rich Asians – the all Asian cast made it notable and the shots of Singapore are great but it’s only average as a romantic comedy. The leads lack chemistry.

The Last Kingdom (Netflix)—I’ve watched all three Seasons and enjoyed them. Season 3, however, is beginning to lose its legs. The on-again, off-again love affair between King Alfred and Uhtred has worn its course and I swear I’ve seen the jump in the boats and row away under falling arrow scene more than once before. Still, it’s not boring.

Bodyguard (Netflix) —taut British thriller. I enjoyed it and at 6 episodes it’s less of an investment than some series.

Homecoming (Amazon Prime)—sold as a Julia Roberts endeavor. She’s fine but the real star is the mysterious atmospherics and unusual shots and edits. I didn’t realize till the end of the first episode that this was a Sam Esmail show. Ah, now it all makes sense. If you liked Mr. Robot, give it a shot. I haven’t finished the first season and I may not, so I can’t say for certain whether the investment is worthwhile.

Daredevil (Netflix) I have already mentioned. Now cancelled, despite a great third season.

The Man Who Would be King (Amazon Prime) – a John Huston classic featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. One of my favorites. Based on a story of Rudyard Kipling which was based on the true story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor.

Image result for aT ETERNITY'S GATEAt Eternity’s Gate: A stirring and powerful performance by Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. Directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a noted artist. The camera work–meant to convey a “you are there” point of view and also the sometime madness of Van Gogh–was disconcertingly jumpy at times. Schnabel would have done better stepping back and placing more trust on Dafoe’s performance and also the cinematography of Benoît Delhomme. Oddly, Schnabel insists Van Gogh was murdered when suicide is the accepted account and one that rings true, even to the film itself.

Machines (Amazon Prime)–an excellent documentary illustrating a day in the life of a textile factory in Gujurat, India. The pictures do the work, very little commentary. Dickensian. Especially striking to an economist , how inefficiently the factory is being run. Quality control, inventory management and maintenance are clearly atrocious. I am reluctant to claim something is inefficient but we have strong experimental evidence that management quality in these firms is very low and that better management could more than pay for itself.

Hope is not lost

While some say wisdom comes with age, younger Americans are better than their elders at separating factual from opinion statements in the news, according to a new analysis from Pew Research Center.

And the gap is noticeable:

About a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. A similar pattern emerges for the opinion statements. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44% correctly identified all five opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26% among those ages 50 and older.

When looking at the 10 statements individually, younger adults were not only better overall at correctly identifying factual and opinion news statements – they could do so regardless of the ideological appeal of the statements.

Maybe social media aren’t so terrible after all.  And maybe cable TV is less than perfect?

That is from Jeffrey Gottfried and Elizabeth Grieco, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Which comics are accused of joke theft?

Why might observers label one social actor’s questionable act a norm violation even as they seem to excuse similar behavior by others? To answer this question, I use participant-observer data on Los Angeles stand-up comics to explore the phenomenon of joke theft. Informal, community-based systems govern the property rights pertaining to jokes. Most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery. I find that accusations are not strongly coupled to jokes’ similarity, and enforcement depends mainly on the extent to which insiders view the comic in question as being authentic to the community. Comics who are oriented toward external rewards, have a track record of anti-social behavior, and exhibit lackluster on-stage craft are vulnerable to joke theft accusations even in borderline cases because those inauthentic characteristics are typical of transgressors. Vulnerability is greatest for comics who enjoy commercial success despite low peer esteem. Authenticity protects comics because it reflects community-based status, which yields halo effects while encouraging relationships predicated on respect. In exploring accusations of joke theft and their outcomes, this study illustrates how norms function more as framing devices than as hard-and-fast rules, and how authenticity shapes their enforcement.

That is from “No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy,” by Patrick Reilly, from the American Sociological Review.

For the pointer I thank Siddharth Muthukrishnan.

Let’s just simulate economic mobility on TV

…contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags to riches” narratives.  Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades.  In three national surveys…I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents.  In experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans.

That is from a new paper by Eunice Kim, via Matt Grossman.