Category: Television

*The Americans*

Natasha and I have finished watching the first season, and I am pleased to report it is one of the few TV series I like.  It pretends to be about “two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple in the suburbs of Washington D.C. in order to spy on the United States.”  But it’s actually about a) Russian mothers having to raise their children in the United States, b) what a marriage actually consists of (spoilers in that link), and c) to what are we loyal?  It captures the 1980s uncannily well.

TV viewing for this summer will likely include the full-length version of Fanny and Alexander, the Danish political thriller Borgen, and season two of Enlightened.

Matt Yglesias appreciates *Star Trek*

You will find his essay here, and I have many points of agreement with him, but I think he undervalues the first series.  Characters and script were excellent in about sixty percent of the original episodes.  It is also noteworthy that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later.  It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now.  I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like, where Matt can tweet something like “Animated series is non-canon, people. Get with the program.”  If you’d like a treat, watch some of the D.C. Fontana-scripted Star Trek episodes, noting that “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is one of the funniest and most profound takes on “the great stagnation” to be found in popular culture or anywhere else for that matter.  And it was written before the great stagnation even started, and by Roddenberry’s office assistant at that.  Magic was in the air.  As for “Spock’s Brain,” well, that is another matter.


John McCain has introduced a bill to “encourage the wholesale and retail unbundling of programming by distributors and programmers.” Would a la carte pricing result in lower prices and greater consumer welfare or would it raise prices and result in less investment in television media? Time to take a look at the economics of bundling. In this video from our MRUniversity course on media economics I review the theory of bundling and then apply it to cable TV.

Why isn’t there even more nepotism in Hollywood?

Alan Crede emails me the following:

It seems there’s a lot of nepotism in Hollywood (the Sheens, Clooneys, Douglases, Arquettes, Goldie Hawn-Kate Hudson, Aaron Spelling-Tori Spelling, etc.).

But it seems for every Angelina Jolie with industry connections, there’s someone like Brad Pitt (an outsider from Missouri).

My question is why is it not *all* nepotism?

I’m struggling to think of a bit of a theory of economic theory that could explain the equilibrium that we see other than the (question-begging) contention that, in order to maximize profits, Hollywood producers cast the ablest actors available to them.

Imagine a talent selection system with many different levels of filters and many, many applicants and also few winners.  The first level could be something as simple as “does anyone even look at your photo shoot or ask you for an audition?”  Let’s also say that nepotism gets you past the first filter, or maybe a bit more, but not past the final filters.  They won’t let you star in a movie just because you’re Goldie Hawn’s daughter (by that time most of her clout is gone).  Nonetheless relatives of famous actors, actresses, etc. still will end up considerably overrepresented on the screen.

There is also someone known who can vouch for you, albeit not always with perfect credibility: “Believe me, if you give my brother this role, he won’t ruin the movie promo efforts with a cocaine addiction.”  And so on.

You will be remembered more easily: imagine a director saying “hey for this bit part, why don’t we get what’s-his-name, you know the brother of [xxxx].”  It is then easier to work your way up.

Being the brother, sister, etc. of a famous actor gets you publicity and makes for a good story.  It draws interest from viewers, just as I was keen to have met Alex’s brother in Toronto last year.  That will help your chances too.  At the same time, talented outsiders still will make their way through the process and achieve stardom.

Nepotism and focality are closely related and they often reinforce each other.

Will marathon viewing become the TV norm?

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.

“House of Cards,” which is the first show made specifically for Netflix, dispenses with some of the traditions that are so common on network TV, like flashbacks. There is less reason to remind viewers what happened in previous episodes, the producers say, because so many viewers will have just seen it. And if they don’t remember, Google is just a click away.

The story is here.  You can buy an entire book at once, as serialization — while not dead — has ceased to be the norm for long novels.  At MOMA they do not run an art exhibit by putting up one new van Gogh painting each day.  Coursera, you will note, still uses a kind of serialization model for its classes rather than putting up all the lectures at once; presumably it wishes to synchronize student participation plus it often delivers the content in real time.  Sushi is served sequentially, even though several cold courses presumably could be carried over at once.  Still, a plate in an omakase experience typically has more than one piece of fish.

For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm.  The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.

Ad-financed shows — still a clear majority of viewing — may prefer to have impressions from the ads spread out over weeks and months rather than concentrated in one long marathon sitting.  Furthermore the show itself relies more heavily on an effective and immediate burst of concentrated marketing, with little room to build word of mouth and roll out a campaign with stages.  That intense publicity can be achieved the first time this model is tried, as everyone will write about the novelty, but it will be harder to summon up interest for successive experiments in this format.

I do not myself enjoy the marathon approach to TV shows, as I prefer to ponder the episodes over weeks, months, or years.  I rebel against watching even two episodes in a row, no matter how much I enjoy the program.  Nonetheless I hope this model succeeds, as I have the self-control to watch only one episode a week or at some otherwise chosen regular pace.

Does Cable TV Ripoff People Who Don’t Like Sports?

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Recently the LATimes ignited a firestorm of anti-sports commentary by arguing that people who don’t watch sports are being ripped off by Cable TV.

A key concern is that the higher bills driven by sports are being shouldered by subscribers whether they watch sports or not.

…”I pay $98 a month for cable and half of that is for sports?” said Vincent Castellanos, 51, a fashion stylist who lives inLos Feliz. “I’ve never once gone to a single sports channel. I wasn’t even aware I was paying for it. I want my money back. Who do I call?”

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic corrected some of the numbers but agreed with the analysis:

If you watch sports, millions of pay-TV households who never click on their ESPN channels are subsidizing your habit. If you don’t watch sports, you’re one of the suckers paying an extra $100 a year for a product you don’t consume.

Kevin Drum demanded a la carte pricing so that:

“sports fans would be forced to pay the actual cost of their sports programming without being subsidized by the rest of us.”

I don’t watch sports very often but I think the commentators have misunderstood the economics of Cable TV and the math of content provision. Let’s consider a simple model, there are content providers such as ESPN and Bravo, distributors such as the cable company and consumers. Let’s assume that there are 4 consumers, 3 of them value football at $10 and Top Chef at $0 and one vice-versa so the model looks like this:

Cable TV Bundling

How much will ESPN and Bravo charge the distributors? Bilateral bargaining between content sellers and distributors can be complex but for the point I want to make we can assume that the distributors simple pass on their input costs to consumers. In this case, ESPN will charge the distributor $30 and Bravo will charge $10, the maximum that they can get.

Here is where the LA Times and the others go very wrong – they reason that $30 of the $40 charged is due to sports so each person is paying $7.50 for football ($7.50*4=$30) and $2.50 for Top Chef ($2.50*4=$10) and, therefore, the Top Chef viewer is being ripped off because 3/4 of their bill is going to support programming they never watch! Mathematically this is as true as any other division of total cost but conceptually it makes little sense. Consider, for example, what happens if we add football viewers. With 9 football viewers, ESPN will charge $90 and Bravo $10 and thus the LA Times would conclude that the Top Chef viewer is even more ripped off than before–90% of their bill is going to football! It’s very odd, however, that the ripoff of the Top Chef viewer gets bigger even as the price that they are charged and their viewing habits aren’t changing! Also as we add more football viewers the per-subscriber charge for Bravo gets smaller and smaller, with 10 viewers it’s only $1. Implicitly the LA Times is suggesting that this number represents what a la carte price would be or could be but that’s nonsense–whatever Bravo’s a la carte price would be it doesn’t get lower as we add more football viewers.

Conceptually it’s much clearer to say that each person is being charged $10 for the programming that they most want to watch. Moreover, the reason that Cable TV firms bundle is precisely because by making the demand for their product more homogeneous they can increase profits. In other words, the best bundle for the Cable TV firm is one in which everyone does in fact value the bundle equally.

The bottom line is that there is no reason to think that Top Chef viewers are subsidizing football.

Is there a great stagnation in action movies?

Chris MacDonald asks me:

Should we expect stagnation, or continued improvement, in the action film genre? The new Bond flick, Skyfall, is getting rave reviews, with some calling it the best Bond film ever. Hyperbole aside, it is indeed very good. Should we expect the next Bond film to be less good (regression to the mean) or is this one of the fields — like baseball management — where mechanisms exist to facilitate further improvement on a fairly reliable basis?

I was less crazy about Skyfall (“M, pull out your cell phone and call for aid!”) but that’s neither here nor there.

As for the stagnation issue, there are two main developments.  The first is a resurrection of sorts, namely 3-D, which is a very real gain, but in my view it is a significant plus for fewer than ten movies, most notably Avatar.

CGI is a gain for some movies (e.g, Troy, Life of Pi, Lord of the Rings), though it often makes action scenes less visceral and more distant.

The main drawback for Hollywood action movies has been globalization, which leads to too many explosions and not enough subtle dialogue and characterization.  The other main drawback has been high marketing costs, which encourages tent pole franchises with prior name recognition with a core audience.  That often means too much clunky plot exposition, too many comic book characters, too great a need to heed the wishes of the hard core audience base, and too few surprises about the characters.  There is one very good Spiderman movie but overall I call this trend a negative.

Still, there has been major progress in action movies, at least if we are willing to accept a particular semantic switch.  I much prefer Goldfinger to the newer Bond movies, but I also don’t think of it as an action movie.  It doesn’t have much action, although I don’t think people at the time felt that way.  By my possibly distorted standards, the Bond movies start being action movies only with Diamonds are Forever.

King Solomon’s Mines is a very good movie, under-watched these days, as is Thief of Baghdad.  Nonetheless prior to the 1970s I think of the action genre as virtually non-existent.  I was stunned when I first (1981) saw the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, though these days it isn’t especially impressive, just well-executed.

One possibility is that each generation thinks it is the first to have had action movies.

To sum up, for all of the contemporary excess, we have been living in a Golden Age of Action Movies. Even a scorned movie such as Lara Croft is pretty awesome on the big screen.  And Asian action movies have reached their peaks only in the last twenty years, including early John Woo.  Call that the plus side of the globalization equation.

That said, a few impressive 3-D movies aside, the last five years have brought more negatives than positives, a’la “Transformers” and various overinflated, noisy, character-stuffed, and self-important Hollywood monstrosities.  We’ll get over it, but in reality stagnation is something we might have wished for instead.

Here is one list of the greatest action movies of all time.  Not many pre-70s movies can stand up to these for action.

The next trend will be RCT-like audience studies to find out exactly which action tricks, with which timings, thrill us and which do not.  Great directors have an intuitive sense for this but it could be made much more scientific.

What is the world’s most valuable media property?

Arguably it is ESPN, which is now valued at about $40 billion:

The reality is that there is not another media property in the world worth as much as ESPN because no media asset delivering content generates close to as much money. Wunderlich pegs the value of the Disney Channel, which is one of the most valuable channels and has the third highest affiliate fees, at $10 billion. It is even uglier in print. The current market value of the New York Times is $1.3 billion. The only media companies in the world worth more than $40 billion are News Corp. ($58 billion) and Comcast ($96 billion). The value of News Corp. is spread out among dozens of media assets, while Comcast derives most of its value from being a cable provider.

Conor Friedersdorf nails it

Before rank-and-file conservatives ask, “What went wrong?”, they should ask themselves a question every bit as important: “Why were we the last to realize that things were going wrong for us?”

Barack Obama just trounced a Republican opponent for the second time. But unlike 4 years ago, when most conservatives saw it coming, Tuesday’s result was, for them, an unpleasant surprise.

Here is a key sentence:

They were operating at a self-imposed information disadvantage.

Read the whole thing.  They should elevate him to something too.  And as Matt Lewis said on Twitter:

Conservative media outlets promote too many voices who mislead the base AND turnoff independents. Good for ratings & clicks/bad for America.

Racism by Political Party

 It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.

Chris Hayes, Up w/ Chris Hayes, August 18, 2012.

Here is data asking whites the question Do you Favor Laws Against Interracial Marriage (this is from 2002, the latest year available for this question).

Favor Laws Against Interracial Marriage
Democrat Ind Repub Other TOTAL
YES 11.9 9.6 11.5 5 10.8
NO 88.1 90.4 88.5 95 89.2


Here is data asking whites whether they agree with the sentiment that Blacks Shouldn’t be Pushy.

Blacks Shouldn’t Be Pushy
Democrat Ind Republican
AGREE STRONGLY 14.9 14.2 15.8
AGREE SLIGHTLY 20.4 20.6 26.6
DISAGREE STRONGLY 34.5 37.2 31.7


Finally from 2008 here is data asking whites whether they would vote for a black for President.  (Row: racpres, column partyid, filter: race(1) year(2008)).

Would Vote for Black President
YES 92.4 94 93.9 94.7
No 7.6 6 6.1 5.3


It is true that there are more differences across party lines on policy questions such as on affirmative action, again with a mix in both parties but with more Republicans than Democrats opposing. I don’t consider these types of policy preferences to be grounds for calling someone a racist, however.

It is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties. No party has a monopoly on racists.

Addendum: John SidesReihan Salam and Razib Khan offer further comment.

Tabarrok on the Alyona Show (“Debtors’ Prisons”)

I believe it was Brad DeLong who once said that people who can look into the camera and emote as if they are talking to a person will one day rule the world. It’s a very unnatural thing but ironically it makes you look much more natural on television (when you look at the person it looks as if you are not looking the viewer in the eye and worst of all is the shifty-eyed switch between looking at the camera and the person or their image which makes you look untrustworthy). I am getting the knack but still have other tics to work on.

Interview below, here is my original post.