Category: Television

Why Has TV Replaced Movies as Elite Entertainment?

Edward Jay Epstein, The Hollywood Economist, has a good post on the economics of movies and television and how this has contributed to a role reversal:

TV-MicroeconomicsOnce upon a time, over a generation ago, The television set was commonly called the “boob tube” and looked down on by elites as a purveyors of mind-numbing entertainment. Movie theaters, on the other hand, were con sidered a venue for, if not art, more sophisticated dramas and comedies. Not any more. The multiplexes are now primarily a venue for comic-book inspired action and fantasy movies, whereas television, especially the pay and cable channels, is increasingly becoming a venue for character-driven adult programs, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire.

Why?  Epstein’s explanation is the rise of Pay-TV.  You can understand what has happened with some microeconomics.  Advertising supported television wants to maximize the number of eyeballs but that often means appealing to the lowest common denominator (this is especially true when there are just three television stations).  The programming that maximizes eyeballs does not necessarily maximize consumer surplus.

See the diagram.

Pay-TV changes the economics by encouraging the production of high consumer-surplus television because with Pay-TV there is at least some potential for trading off eyeballs for greater revenue.  In addition, as more channels become available, lowest common denominator television is eaten away by targetted skimming.  Thus, in one way or another, Pay-TV has come to dominate television.

The movies, however, have become more reliant on large audiences–at least relative to television.  Note that even though the movies are not free, a large chunk of the revenue is generated by concessions–thus the movie model is actually closer to a maximizing mouths model than it might first appear (see also my brother’s comments on how flat movie pricing makes it difficult for indie films to compete).  Finally, the rise of international audiences for movies has fed a lowest common denominator strategy (everyone appreciates when stuffs blows up real good). As a result, the movies have moved down the quality chain and television has moved up.

Hat tip: Tyler.

Comedy recommendations

Steve Hely writes to me:

I'm a real admirer of your blog.  You offer such great recommendations.  But it seems you rarely recommend any comedy.  Are there any books, TV shows, movies, etc. that have made you laugh in recent years?

It's well-known that comedy hits don't usually export well to other countries, because comedy is so culturally specific and also so subjective.  So these are not recommendations.  What I find funny is this:

1. On TVCurb Your Enthusiasm and the better ensemble pieces of Seinfeld and also The Ali G Show.  The best Monty Python skits are very funny to me, although I find their movies too long and labored.  I find stand-up comics funny only when I am there in person.

2. Movies: The last funny movie I saw was I Love You, Man.  I like most classic comedies, though without necessarily finding them very funny.  Danny Kaye's The Court Jester is a good comedy which most people don't watch any more.  I enjoy the chaotic side of W.C. Fields in short doses.  Jerry Lewis is funny sometimes, plus there is Pillow Talk.  I like the first forty minutes or so of Ferris BuellerStardust Memories is my favorite Woody Allen film, though I like many of them.

3. Books: I don't find books of fiction funny, blame it on me.  I do find David Hume, and other classic non-fiction authors, to be at times hilarious.

On YouTube, I find the economics comic Yoram Bauman funny.  Colbert can be very funny.

I wonder how many dimensions are required to explain or predict a person's taste in comedy?

Game-theoretic allegations about branding and Snooki

Allegedly, the anxious folks at these various luxury houses are all aggressively gifting our gal Snookums with free bags. No surprise, right? But here's the shocker: They are not sending her their own bags. They are sending her each other's bags! Competitors' bags!

Call it what you will – "preemptive product placement"? "unbranding"? – either way, it's brilliant, and it makes total sense. As much as one might adore Miss Snickerdoodle, her ability to inspire dress-alikes among her fans is questionable. The bottom line? Nobody in fashion wants to co-brand with Snooki.

The full story is here and I thank Morgan Warstler for the pointer.

What is emblematic of the 21st century?

A recent reader request was:

What things that are around today are most distinctively 21st century?  What will be the answer to this question in 10 years?

Here is what comes to mind and I think most of it will remain emblematic for some time:

Technology: iPhone, Wii, iPad, Kindle.  These are no-brainers and I do think it will go down in American history as "iPhone," not "iPhone and other smart phones."  Sorry people.

To read: blogs and Freakonomics, this is the age of non-fiction.  I don't think we have an emblematic and culturally central novel for the last ten years.  The Twilight series is a possible pick but I don't think they will last in our collective memory.  Harry Potter (the series started 1997) seems to belong too much to the 1990s.

Films: Avatar, Inception (for appropriately negative reviews of the latter, see here, here, and here).  Both will look and feel "of this time."  Overall there have been too many "spin-off" movies.  Keep in mind this question is not about "what is best."

Music: It's been a slow period, but I'll pick Lady Gaga, most of all for reflecting the YouTube era rather than for her music per se.  I don't think many musical performers from the last ten years will become canonical, even though the number of "good songs" is quite high.  Career lifecycles seem to be getting shorter, for one thing.

TelevisionThe Sopranos starts in 1999, so it comes closer to counting than Harry Potter does.  It reflects "the HBO era."  Lost was a major network show and at the very least people will laugh at it, maybe admire it too.  Battlestar Galactica.  Reality TV.

What am I missing?  What does this all add up to?  Pretty strange, no?

p.s. Need to add Facebook and Google somewhere!

Why do we like adventure stories with guides?

Robin Hanson asks:

I’ve been sick, so watched tv more than usual. Watching Journey to the Center of the Earth, I noticed yet again how folks seem to like adventure stories and games to come with guides. People prefer main characters to follow a trail of clues via a map or book written by someone who has passed before, or at least to follow the advice of a wise old person.

Dante of course provides another example, as does Sibyl and Aeneas.  And Robin's conclusion?:

This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success.   Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.

If you want life paths that quickly and reliably reveal your skills, like leveling up in video games, you want artificial worlds like schools, sporting leagues, and corporate fast tracks.  You might call such lives adventures, but really they pretty much the opposite.  If you insist instead on adventuring for real, achieving things of real and large consequence against great real obstacles, well then learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail. 

Where should LeBron James go?

According to what moral theory? 

Still, to me the answer is obvious, though no one seems to even discuss my idea.  He should go to the Los Angeles Lakers.  For a one-year contract, zero pay, if he can't convince the Lakers to pay the luxury tax.  Better yet, make zero pay part of the PR in an age where viewers are sick of huge corporate bonuses for non-winning CEOs.  This way he would learn the ways of a winning organization, which he needs to do, and very likely win a title immediately. He would convince Phil Jackson to return for another year.  Most of his income comes from endorsements anyway, so he doesn't need the salary, plus the title and Los Angeles exposure would make his name more valuable.  He would get "credit" for the title (does anyone these days complain that Magic Johnson never won a title without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?  No.)  He could play fewer minutes and extend his career and keep his stamina intact for the playoffs.  The next year he could move on or he might even decide to stay, pairing with Gasol and Bynum for years, while Kobe slides into a sixth man role.  Since he has had good health, he could buy an insurance policy to protect against career-ending injury.

The idea of pairing James with Wade and Bosh seems to me extremely misguided: LeBron, please read Ludwig Lachmann's Capital and its Structure!

Capitalism: Hollywood’s Miscast Villain

In the WSJ online I cover Hollywood and capitalism including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Wire and much else.  Here are two bits:

Although Hollywood does sometimes produce leftist films like "Reds," it has no deep love for socialism…

But Hollywood does share Marx's concept of alienation, the idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine rather than independent creators. The lowly screenwriter is a perfect illustration of what Marx had in mind–a screenwriter can pour heart and soul into a screenplay only to see it rewritten, optioned, revised, reworked, rewritten again and hacked, hacked and hacked by a succession of directors, producers and, worst of all, studio executives. A screenwriter can have a nominally successfully career in Hollywood without ever seeing one of his works brought to the screen. Thus, the antipathy of filmmakers to capitalism is less ideological than it is experiential. Screenwriters and directors find themselves in a daily battle between art and commerce, and they come to see their battle against "the suits" as emblematic of a larger war between creative labor and capital.

On The Wire:

…although it uses character, "The Wire" is ultimately about how character is dominated by larger economic forces: drug dealers come and go, but the drug market is forever. "Capitalism is the ultimate god in The Wire. Capitalism is Zeus," says David Simon, the show's creator.

Over its five seasons, "The Wire" shows how money and markets connect and intertwine white and black, rich and poor, criminal and police in a grand web that none of them truly comprehends–a product of human action but not of human design. It's the invisible hand that's calling the shots, as Mr. Simon subtly reminds us in the conclusion to the third season, when Detective McNulty wondrously pulls a book from the shelf of murdered drug dealer Stringer Bell, and the camera focuses in on the title: "The Wealth of Nations" by Adam Smith.

Smith's metaphor of the invisible hand, like Mr. Simon's invocation of Zeus, tells us that to understand the world we need to look beyond the actions of individuals to see the larger forces at work. But Zeus is an arbitrary and capricious god whose lightning bolts fall out of the sky without reason or direction. Smith's "invisible hand," however, is that of a kinder god, a god that cares not one whit for individuals but nevertheless guides self-interest toward the social good, progress, and economic growth. So Mr. Simon understands that the Baltimore dockworkers lost their jobs because of the relentless change that capitalism brings and not through any fault of their own. But Adam Smith sees what Mr. Simon does not, namely that it was capitalism that brought the Baltimore stevedores their high wages in the first place and it is the relentless change of capitalism that slowly raises wages throughout the world.

More here.

*Lost*: commentary on the final episode

Most of all, it reminded me of Jacob's Ladder and especially Michael Powell's Stairway to Heaven (A Matter of Life and Death), two movies worth rewatching in any case.  The final scene, while the credits roll, is simply that of a plane crash with no survivors.  I view the show's cosmology as reflecting the existence of all possible universes and we get to see, and live with, a few of them.  That includes the universe where they all die in the initial crash, the universe where they all die in the hydrogen bomb explosion, the universe where the hydrogen bomb creates an alternative reality, the universe where there really is a miraculously surviving "Oceanic Six," the universe where the main island narrative happens, the universe where it is all a dream of Jack's, and bits of others as well.  This Leibnizian move "explains" the show's numerous unanswered questions, such as those about the lottery numbers and many more.  It was possible, so it happened, toss in the anthropic principles as well.

The most striking moment of the final episode was when Locke tells Jack, quite sincerely, that he does not in fact have a son.  The question remains how the different universes fit together or interact and in some manner it seems they do.  The final episode is extremely effective in bringing out the dreamy and speculative tones of many of the previous episodes.

Most of all I viewed the ending as tragic.  It was not mainly about any particular account of the metaphysics of the island.  It was about how few couples had the chance to actually live together, love together, and stay together.  The perfect reunions of the couples in the "we're all dead" scenario only drove this point home.  I found this contrast moving.

At the end, the door is left open for Jack (the body of Jack?) to become the next smoke monster on the island and you can spot some clues to this effect, such as Jack's body being strewn on the stones in the same manner as it was for The Man in Black.

I saw two major weaknesses in the denouement.  First, Widmore is dispatched too summarily in the penultimate episode.  That thread of the story is not so much hanging (which would have been OK), but rendered irrelevant.  Years of dramatic gravitas were swept away in a single, hastily executed murder scene.  Second, Ben is a weak and poorly defined character in the final episode and runs around like a puppy dog, with no clear moral stance.  Since he usually dominates any scene he is in, this is strikingly incongruous.

Overall I thought it was the best final episode of a series I have seen, with close competition from The Sopranos.

Extreme Foreclosure

The house at 10512 Baldy Mountain Rd. in Sandpoint, Idaho, looks like just another vacant foreclosed home. Some appliances, a bathroom mirror and even the hot tub are missing. The dining room of the three-bedroom house has water damage.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill problem house. Call it an Extreme Foreclosure. The 3,678-square-foot McMansion is a product of the popular "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" reality television show. It isn't the only "Extreme" home to fall on hard times.

From the WSJ.

The iPad

Could this be the medium through which the fabled convergence finally occurs?

Most of all, think of it as a substitute for your TV.

It has the all-important quality of allowing you to bend your head and body as you wish (more or less), as you use it.  By bringing it closer or further, you control the "real size" of the iPad, so don't fixate on whether it appears "too big" or "too small."

The pages turn faster than those of Kindle.  The other functions are also extremely quick and the battery feels eternal.

So far my main complaint is how it uses "auto-correct" to turn "gmu" into "gum."

While I will bring it on some trips, most of all it feels too valuable to take very far from the house.

On YouTube I watched Chet Atkins, Sonny Rollins, and Angela Hewitt.

Note all the categories on this short post!

Questions that are rarely asked: why so many retired cops?

JIm Crozier, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Why do cop movies and TV shows so often begin with an older (and often jaded) officer that is just about to retire? It is quite astounding how often this unrealistic plot trick is employed, and the psychological grounding seems weak at best. 

I don't have the viewing experience to give you an evidence-based response.  I would think the answer might lie in marginal utility theory plus behavioral economics.  Perhaps all his life that officer has failed to achieve some desired end, such as catching a criminal, bringing an evil politician to justice, reforming the corrupt police force, or whatever.  If the officer is near retirement, we know we are watching a very dramatic story which will define the life and career of that officer for ever and ever.  It is harder for the viewer to have the same feeling if the officer has four years, three months remaining on the force.  Failure would not mean final failure.

On the behavioral front, our impressions of experiences, and the memories we form, very often depend on what comes last.  Judges are more impressed by the group which sings last in the Eurovision contest, even though it is randomized.  The viewer thus implicitly knows that the cop really cares about the final segment of his or her career, reinforcing the point about decisiveness and marginal utility.

Viewers, can you do better?

The High Cost of Free TV

Despite the fact that 91 percent of American households get their television via cable or satellite huge chunks of radio-spectrum are locked up in the dead technology of over-the-air television.  In his Economic View column today Richard Thaler features the work of our GMU colleague Tom Hazlett who argues that auctioning off the spectrum to the high value users would generate at least $100 billion for the government and generate a trillion dollars of value to consumers.  Thaler writes:

I KNOW that this proposal sounds too good to be true, but I think the opportunity is real. And unlike some gimmicks from state and local governments, like selling off proceeds from the state lottery to a private company, this doesn’t solve current problems simply by borrowing from future generations. Instead, by allowing scarce resources to be devoted to more productive uses, we can create real value for the economy.