Category: Television

*Bad Religion*

The author is Ross Douthat and the subtitle is How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  It is a very good and very serious book arguing that America needs better religious thinking and practice, excerpt:

The entire media-entertainment complex, meanwhile, was almost shamelessly pro-Catholic.  If a stranger to American life had only the movies, television, and popular journalism from which to draw inferences, he probably would have concluded  that midcentury America was a Catholic-majority country — its military populated by the sturdy Irishmen of The Fighting 69th (1948) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944); its children educated and its orphans rescued by the heroic priests and nuns celebrated in Boys Town (1938), The Bells of Saint Mary’s (1945), and Fighting Father Dunne (1948); its civic life dominated by urban potentates like Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia; its everyday life infused with Catholic kitsch, from the 1950s hit single “Our Lady of Fatima” to the “win one for the Gipper” cult of Notre Dame football.

My main question is what could have become of most organized religion in an era of newly found television penetration — a competing source of ideas about right and wrong — and the birth control pill and sexual liberation of women?  Not to mention gay rights.  The recent evolution of American religion may not be optimal, but it is endogenous to some fairly fundamental forces.  Non-religious thinking seems to offer especially high returns to successful people these days, and while American religion certainly has survived that impact (unlike in the UK?), what is left will seem quite alienating to much of the intelligentsia, Ross included.

For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25.  American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture.  Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?

Ross’s close comes off as voluntarist (“That quest begins with a single step…”), but in an economic model which change might nudge the United States back toward a more intellectual Christianity?  Your suggestions are welcome.

Economic themes in *Girls*, the new HBO show

The comic timing is very good, and the show also explains:

1. Why the “Rotten Kid theorem” fails and why theories of strategic bequest are unlikely to work,

2. The longer-term consequences of a slow job market for youth, and

3. What life is like when your IQ is high but the shadow value of your labor is low.

The first episode is now on YouTube.

Has baseball become an inferior good?

From John D. Burger and Stephen J.K. Walters:

World Series telecasts are now an inferior good. Income and the time cost of consumption interact so that a ten percent income increase reduces viewership by 1.8 million households. Increased availability of substitutes reduces ratings but increased drama improves them.

What does that say about the future of the sport?  About the future of television?

For the pointer I thank Kevin Lewis.

The economics of TV pundit panels

@ModeledBehavior tweets:

Who’ll write “the economics of CNNs extremely, extremely ****ing banal pundit panel”. Surely, there must be a reason for it?

Except he spelt out the entire word.

The goal is to keep people on the same channel, by whatever means possible.  The true end of the debate event means the TV will be turned off or the channel switched.  It’s not like the old days when on Saturday night the people who wanted to see “Mary Tyler Moore Show” then wanted to watch Bob Newhart afterwards.  There is no real sequel to these “debates,” or at least no appropriate sequel which can be enacted with the aid of a television.

So they will do everything possible to stretch out the event.  Furthermore, the viewers actually want to talk to each other about the debates, so the continuation should be something which does not command too much viewer attention.  No Evil Knievel.  The panel is a signal of “now is the focal time to make fun of these guys with the other people on your sofa,” don’t stop, keep up the jokes guys, and the panel members, perhaps unintentionally, try to stretch out that period of your witty mockery for as long as possible.  Which isn’t that long, but hey they have to try.

Why is NBA TV viewership up so much?

The first 325 games of this NBA season averaged attendance of 17,094. That’s better than 89 percent of capacity, and a hair better than the first 325 games of last season, which averaged 17,057.

But almost every other indicator blows those in-arena numbers away. Viewership is going a bit nuts:

  • ABC has had just three games, so it’s hard to say anything conclusive, but the audience is up five percent compared to a year ago.
  • ESPN viewership is up 23 percent.
  • TNT viewership is up 50 percent.
  • NBA TV viewership is up an insane 66 percent.
  • NBA on regional cable sports networks are up 12 percent.
  • Local over-the-airwaves broadcasts are up 36 percent.

NBA TV is particularly interesting. Five of the channel’s ten most viewed games ever have been this season, with January’s Lakers-Clippers game the most viewed game in network history.

That is from Henry Abbott, here is more.  Many people thought the strike would hurt fan interest, but apparently not.  (It did hurt my interest, but not out of any grudge; I tuned into a few early games and found them unspeakably bad in terms of quality.  By now most players seem to be in shape, although blowouts and lopsided low scores remain too common.  I believe the spread of the “team coordination” variable has increased.)  Is this a behavioral effect?  Like taking the peanuts away and making people crave them more?

Do more frequent games, in response to the strike-shortened season, spur a greater “habit formation” demand?  Do more frequent games imply that a major star is playing on TV virtually every night?  That is my hypothesis.  How will the NBA respond?

By the way, I have a longstanding custom of predicting, or rather failing to predict, the NBA championship winner each year.  This year I say it is wide open, yet to be determined, and ask me again after the trade deadline.  MLE is Miami, but a well-coordinated lesser team could knock them off, especially if they remain injury-prone.

Sherlock Holmes v. Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is ok so long as you are expecting a comic book adventure along the lines of Captain America or Iron Man (natch) and not a detective-mystery ala Sherlock Holmes. A smart character requires smart writers and in this movie the producers saved the money for special effects.

In contrast, the British TV series Sherlock is a must see. Sherlock reboots Holmes into our world. Yet despite advancing in time some 130 years when Sherlock first meets Watson he says, exactly as in the original, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” A shiver ran down my spine.

Sherlock is fast-paced but clever. It’s written by two Doctor Who vets who invest Holmes with wit, originality and intellect, rather than the quasi-magical powers found in the aforementioned movie. The chemistry between Holmes and Watson is  clear – one understands in this version what is lacking in many others, these two need each other.

The first season has only 3, 90 minute, episodes but a second season just ran in Britain and I expect it will soon be available in the U.S.

Have we reached peak TV?

Probably not, but right now American ownership is going down:

The Nielsen Company announced the 2012 Advance/Preliminary TV Household Universe Estimate (UE) is 114.7 million, down from 115.9 million in 2011. Marking the first integration of the 2010 Census counts, the 2012 UEs reflect an aging population, as Baby Boomers increasingly shift out of the 35-49 demographic, as well as greater ethnic diversity.

The 2012 UEs also reflect a reduction in the estimated percent of U.S. homes with a television set (TV penetration), which declined to 96.7 percent from 98.9 percent.

There is much more at the link, and for the pointer I thank Mark Thorson.

Explaining the economics of the Bowl system

Over at, here is my piece with Kevin Grier, on the question of bowls vs. playoffs. Here is an excerpt:

In 2007, Mark Schlabach chronicled the Chick-fil-a Bowl’s selection process. He explained that Boston College was not invited to the game in Atlanta because organizers worried that BC’s fan base wouldn’t buy enough tickets and spend enough money.

“The BC thing ate me up for a week,” Stokan (the Bowl President) said. “The factors on the field were very favorable to Boston College. But when you look at this thing, you have to take into account the players, the administrators, the relationships with the leagues and the financial commitments. The city really depends on us because we’re one of the top 10 conventions. We have an obligation to hotels, restaurants and retailers.”

Are you surprised that this bowl is run by the local Chamber of Commerce?

…Did you know that there is a “Sugar Bowl CEO”? Circa 2009, he was paid more than $600,000 a year. Is it surprising that the Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl each have more than $30 million in net assets? Did you know that many of these bowls also receive government subsidies?

The piece ends thus:

In sum, we have a system where the games are not designed to produce the best on-field matchups, the competitors often lose money but fight fiercely to participate, outsiders and observers complain vehemently, and the organizers amass and waste a great deal of money with little oversight.

Welcome to capitalism, American style. Get back to us when you’ve found a better system.

Here is Art Carden on the same topic.

Are we stagnating aesthetically?

Some of you have been emailing, asking for my opinion of this recent Kurt Andersen Vanity Fair article.  Here is the summary introductory paragraph:

For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.

There is plenty more at the link.  A serious response would require a book or more, so let me offer a few conclusions, noting that it’s not possible in blog space to defend these judgments at any length.  This is all about aesthetics, and it is distinct from the TGS technology argument, though one might believe that technical breakthroughs are needed to usher in aesthetic innovations, and that slowness in the one area would lead to slowness in the other.  That’s not a claim I’ve ever made, but it’s worth considering even if it can’t be settled very easily.  In any case, here’s my view of the evidence:

1. Movies: The Hollywood product has regressed, though one can cite advances in 3-D and CGI as innovations in the medium if not always the aesthetics.  The foreign product is robust in quality, though European films are not nearly as innovative as during the 1960s and 70s.  Still,  I don’t see a slowdown in global cinema as a whole.

2. TV: We just finished a major upswing in quality for the best shows, though I fear it is over, as no-episode-stands-alone series no longer seem to be supported by the economics.

3. Books/fiction: It’s wrong to call graphic novels “new,” but they have seen lots of innovation.  If we look at writing more broadly, the internet has led to plenty of innovation, including of course blogs.  The traditional novel is doing well in terms of quality even if this is not a high innovation era comparable to say the 1920s (Mann, Kafka, Proust, others).

4. Computer and video games: This major area of innovation is usually completely overlooked by such discussions.

5. Music: Popular music has been in a Retromania sludge since the digital innovations of the early 90s, but classical contemporary music continues to show vitality and it is even establishing some foothold in the concert hall and in nightclubs too.  Jazz has plenty of niche innovation, but it’s not moving forward with new, central ideas which command the attention of the field.

6. Painting and sculpture: Lots of good material, no breakthrough central movements comparable to Pop Art or Abstract Expressionism.  Photography has seen lots of innovation.

7. Your personal stream: This is arguably the biggest innovation in recent times, and it is almost completely overlooked.  It’s about how you use modern information technology to create your own running blend of sources, influences, distractions, and diversions, usually taken from a blend of the genres and fields mentioned above.  It’s really fun and most of us find it extremely compelling.  See chapter three of Create Your Own Economy/The Age of the Infovore.

8. Architecture: Slows down after 2008, but there were numerous innovative blockbuster buildings prior to the crash.

Today the areas of major breakthrough innovation are writing, computer games, television, photography (less restricted to the last decade exclusively) and the personal stream.  Let’s hope TV can keep it up, and architecture counts partially.  For one decade, namely the last decade, that’s quite a bit, though I can see how it might escape the attention of a more traditional survey.  Some other areas, such as the novel, global cinema, and the visual arts are holding their own and producing plenty of small and mid-size innovations.

Although that is a relatively optimistic take on the aesthetics of the last decade, it nonetheless supports the view that aesthetic innovation relies on technological innovation.  Most (not all) of the major areas of progress have relied on digitalization, and indeed that is the one field where the contemporary world has brought a lot of technological progress as well.

Hansonian prediction market TV

Eric Crampton writes:

I love that we’re now getting punditry informed by market odds. Even better would be if the commentators disclosed the trades they were making consequent to their analysis rather than saying which way they would trade were they to trade!

There is now a whole prime-time TV show, in New Zealand, where pundits discuss various events through the market of prediction windows.  At the link you will find full clips of all the shows.  Bomber Bradbury hosts the programme.

U.S. fact of the day

Univision dominated its English-language counterparts last night [Monday night], winning Monday night in adults 18-49 (2.3/6), adults 18-34 (2.5/7) and total viewers (5.7 million) with the three-hour finale of Pequeños Gigantes. Fox (2.0/5, 4.5 million) was second in the demo, paced by a new Hell’s Kitchen (2.6/6, 5.8 million) at 9 PM, which was the top-rated program of the night despite slipping 10% in the demo from last Monday. (It followed a Hell’s Kitchen rerun, which dragged down the network’s nightly average.) ABC’s two-hour Bachelor Pad (1.8/5, 5.9 million), was also down 10% from last week and edged Hell’s Kitchen as the most watched program of the night. The only other original last night was NBC’s Children of 9/11, the first of a slew of 9/11 specials to unspool on the broadcast networks this week. It drew a 1.1/3 demo rating at 10 PM, tying CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 rerun for the top spot in the hour.

The link is here.

WKRP and the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons

The tragedy of the commons occurs when no one has the right to exclude users of a resource and, as a result, the resource is overused. The tragedy of the anti-commons occurs when many people have the right exclude users of a resource and, as a result, the resource is under-used. Case in point:

From Amazon’s review of the DVD of WKRP in Cincinnati:

One of DVD’s most requested titles, WKRP in Cincinnati is a blast from the past and an absolutely golden oldie. But this first-season set is bound to cause static with fans who have eagerly anticipated its release. Because of pesky music rights, the songs don’t remain the same. “Hot Blooded” is not playing when mild-mannered newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) puts on a toupee in anticipation of an awards-dinner date with bombshell station receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson). It’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and not “Fly Me to the Moon” that chimes when Jennifer’s doorbell is sounded. Any number of generic songs have replaced the contemporary and classic rock so vital to WKRP, which is, after all, set at a radio station…

Wikipedia explains

Music licensing deals cut at the time of production were for a limited amount of time (approximately ten years). In addition, the show was videotaped rather than filmed because it was cheaper to get the rights to rock songs for a taped show. Once the licenses expired, later syndicated versions of the show did not feature the music as first broadcast, but rather generic “sound-alikes” by studio musicians to avoid paying additional royalties. In some cases (when the music was playing in the background of a dialogue scene), some of the characters’ lines had to be redubbed by sound-alike actors….

Notice that no one really gains here from the surfeit of copyright, not even the copyright holders. Is Foreigner really better off by excluding listeners from a few well-timed seconds of Hot Blooded?  On the contrary, a little youthful nostalgia adds to demand. But the copyright holders, each in their eagerness to profit, raise the transaction costs of producing the whole product so much that it either isn’t produced at all or is produced, as in this case, in a way which greatly reduces consumer value.

WKRP in Cincinnati is not that important in the grand scheme of things but it is an illustration of how copyright  and patent thickets can impede innovation.

Hat tip to Michael Heller’s excellent The Gridlock Economy.

Are TV commercials too loud?

Some people in Canada think so:

Ever noticed that TV commercials seem to be louder than the program? So has Canada's broadcast regulator.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has launched a public consultation on the loudness of TV commercials.

What is the equilibrium?  Ban loud commercials and people will turn up the volume.  First, they won't need to tune down the volume for protection against the commercials, and second the broadcasters might lower the volume on the shows so that the commercials are still louder by contrast.

With a threshold effect (the program has to be at least so loud, or you can't hear it), the average heard volume of commercials could end up louder than before.  Imagine the supplier making the program really, really faint, to induce you to make the package louder.

Or if the volume and thus the effectiveness of commercials declines, the real $$ price of cable might go up to compensate.  Even with price regulation, the real price can rise by a decline in the quality of programming.  Admittedly, especially in the short run, the cable company might just "swallow" the volume change, but in the longer run program quality should be expected to adjust.

I wonder how much of the cost of commercials is the volume, and how much the cost is the voice prosody and the continual feeling that they are trying to intrude, which follows from pacing, mood, speed of talking, and so on.  These are other margins where suppliers can adjust.

Probably this change won't much benefit viewers.