Category: Television

Introductory Korean drama

To an economist like me, this fondness for hospitals is surprising, because hospitals are expensive in Korea and much of the bill is not covered by Korea’s National Health Insurance system.  Price-elasticity of demand does not seem to work in Korean drama.

That is from Princeton economist Uwe E. Reinhardt, from a document from his “class” on Korean Drama (pdf).  He introduces the “class” with this explanation:

After the near-collapse of the world’s financial system has shown that we economists really do not know how the world works, I am much too embarrassed to teach economics anymore, which I have done for many years.  I will teach Modern Korean Drama instead.

Although I have never been to Korea, I have watched Korean drama on a daily basis for over six years now.  Therefore I can justly consider myself an expert in that subject.

By the way, I have been watching Boys Over Flowers lately, a Korean drama (it’s also on Hulu).  Think of it as a mix of Heathers, Mean Girls, and Clueless, but set in a posh Korean high school, with lots of “Average is Over” value.  There is definitely income-elasticity of demand in Korean drama, even if there is not much price-elasticity.  There is also plenty on matching models, moral hazard, status competition, and repeated games, and not always with cooperative solutions.

For the pointer I thank Oriol Andres.

Is the Sugar Quota JUSTIFIED?

justifiedJustified, one of the best written and most entertaining shows on television, premiered last night. I liked this exchange between two drawling criminals:

Where’s the rest of the money?

That’s all we got from the candy company.

Yeah, what candy company is that Dillie?

The one that bought the sugar.

The joke is that we think the criminals are talking in street code about another white powder but, as we learn later, they actually are part of a sugar smuggling operation. The US sugar quota has increased the US price of sugar well above world levels and this has in fact pushed a number of candy companies to the wall. I suspect that few of them have turned to the black market for their sugar although I wouldn’t put this past some unethical confectioners. Nevertheless, sugar smuggling is not unknown.

In the 1980s when the US price of sugar was pushed as much as four times higher than the world price there were many smuggling schemes if not actual sugar-runners. In our textbook, Modern Principles, Tyler and I discuss one scheme where Canadian entrepreneurs shipped super-sweet iced tea to the United States where the “tea” was then sifted and the sugar resold. And from 2000 here is a great moment for US democracy, namely US Senator Byron Dorgan rising in support of legislation:

…to prevent molasses stuffed with sugar from being allowed into this country.

As others have stated, the molasses in question is stuffed with South American sugar in Canada [those Canadians again, AT], and then transported into the United States. The sugar is then spun out of this concoction and sold in this country while the molasses is sent right back across the border to be stuffed with more sugar–and the smuggling cycle starts over again.

The Greek public broadcaster showdown, and when do people finally snap?

There is now a chance that the Greek coalition government will collapse, and in some manner re-form, due to the controversy over the possible shutdown of Greece’s public broadcasting outlet (now suspended by the Greek High Court).  Here are comments from Matt, and also from Open Europe.  Here is a long update on the story.

There is a broader point about the possibility of countries on the periphery leaving the eurozone or otherwise choosing a radical change, such as outright default or capital controls or an illiberal government or a blatant renegotiation of the current deal.  Many observers seem to have in mind a path where things get really bad, economically speaking that is, and then a country leaves the eurozone (or makes some other radical choice) because they can’t stand it any more when things are at the absolute bottom.  Once things are looking up, it is assumed that countries are on board for the foreseeable future.

Without wishing to rely too heavily on Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution (pdf), that’s not how things usually work.  Very often there is an ongoing history of major problems and depredations.  Then things seem to get better or perhaps they really do get better.  Expectations start to rise.  Then some small events come along and those events are blown out of proportion, leading to the crisis in public opinion that didn’t quite happen in the first place.

The current Turkish crisis was set off by a dispute over a public park, and the recent demonstrations in Brazil seem to have been prompted by a 7% hike in bus fare prices, which is about ten U.S. cents.  Yet in neither case is the small trigger the ultimate cause of the discontent.

Many deconversions from religion, or from fandom, or even from marriage, work the same way.  Big lies are told and those lies inflict some damage.  The institution in question soldiers on.  A bit later, an apparently smaller slight or problem brings the whole thing crashing to the ground, precisely when things appeared to be getting better.

I’m not saying it always runs that way, only that it is a very common path.  Furthermore the steepest period of decline is very often when people are too preoccupied with coping to make the major adjustment.

The bottom line is that one should not dismiss the importance of small events, especially these days.

Addendum: Edward Hugh argues that Grexit is not off the table.  Here is a short piece on the Tocqueville thesis and China.

The passing of James Gandolfini

Ross Douthat called him “the best actor in the best TV show of all time.”  I consider that to be a fair description.  I will never forget Tony proclaiming in one episode “He ain’t got ungatz” (sp?) and suddenly understanding what my father had meant by that many years ago.  In my dotage I hope to watch through all of the episodes once again.  Here is one good obituary; Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey and was born in Westwood, both very close to my own upbringing.

Gandolfini was not very well known when he was cast as Tony Soprano, and of course this raises the broader question of how much talent is actually out there.

@ModeledBehavior asked an interesting question: “Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?”

Where does the right to publicity lie? (hard to discern)

The Screen Actors Guild and several players’ unions have filed briefs supporting Mr. Hart, saying that athletes, actors and other celebrities must have the right to control the use of their identities and to harvest the financial fruits of their fame. The movie industry, book publishers and news organizations, including The New York Times, have lined up on the other side, saying that allowing celebrities to control speech about them runs afoul of the First Amendment.

The dueling briefs cited a grab bag of cases that are hard to wrestle into a coherent legal framework.

The courts have, on the one hand, rejected right-of-publicity suits arising from a painting of Tiger Woods, a comic book evoking the musicians Johnny and Edgar Winter, parody baseball trading cards and a fantasy baseball game that used the names, statistics and biographies of Major League players. But courts have allowed suits over the broadcast of a human cannonball’s entire act, a comic book using a hockey player’s nickname, an ad evoking Vanna White’s skill at turning letters on “The Wheel of Fortune” and a reference to Rosa Parks in a song.

If there is a legal principle that unites these rulings, it is hard to discern. What is clear, though, according to an expansive 2011 Supreme Court decision, is that video games deserve full First Amendment protection.

Here is more, by Adam Liptak.  Here is a Gloria Franke paper (pdf) on some of the underlying legal (and economic) issues.

The value of the pause?

…research suggests that taking breaks between episodes can increase your enjoyment.  Perhaps most amazingly, commercials can improve the experience of watching television.  Even entertaining shows start to drag after five to seven minutes, decreasing our enjoyment.  Commercials disrupt that adaptation process, so when the show comes back on, we can fall in love with Jim and Pam all over again.

The quotation is from Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, and the underlying research is here.  I believe this hypothesis does not apply to me, nonetheless I am glad to season two of Borgen does not arrive until later in June.  I am never tempted by binge viewing, and in general I do not like to watch two episodes in a row.

The decline of interest in female film stars

Glamour featured film stars on half of its covers in 2012. But the May 2012 issue featuring Lauren Conrad, the former star of the reality show “The Hills,” was the year’s best-selling issue, at 500,072 copies. The magazine now expects to make film stars the minority presence in 2013.

At Cosmopolitan, the best-selling cover this year featured Kim Kardashian in April, with 1.2 million copies sold, followed by the singer Miley Cyrus in March with 1.1 million copies. In 2012, three out of five of Cosmopolitan’s top covers featured the celebrities Demi Lovato with 1.379 million copies sold, Khloé Kardashian at 1.354 million copies and Selena Gomez at 1.334 million copies.

Vogue’s best-selling cover in the first four months of 2013 featured Beyoncé with 340,000 copies sold. In 2012, Lady Gaga commanded the cover of Vogue’s September issue and sold nearly double the number of copies of the January 2012 issue, featuring Meryl Streep.

It’s not just younger women’s magazines that are moving away from film stars. When Redbook landed an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow for its January issue, the magazine featured her with her trainer Tracy Anderson and not in what the magazine’s editor in chief, Jill Herzig, called the “traditional A-lister in a ball gown kind of way.”

It is music and TV which are in the ascendancy.  I blame the globalization of the movie market in part, which skews Hollywood movies more toward Asian male audiences, in turn limiting their appeal to American females.  In general international audiences lower the return to good dialog and raise the return on action and explosions, which on average hurts prominent female roles.  Note that men’s magazines are now having more film stars on their covers.  And there is this:

A recently published study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed that the percentage of female characters with a speaking part in the nation’s top movies each year reached its lowest point in the past five years in 2012, at 28 percent. Ms. Coles said it had become so difficult to find female film stars to feature from this summer’s blockbusters that her magazine was publishing an article about the problem.

The full article is here.

*Borgen*, season one

He is a market-oriented professor of economics who talks about Milton Friedman to his young Danish students.  She is — suddenly — Prime Minister of Denmark and leader of a moderate left party, but not actually prepared to wield power.  The regime is proportional representation and maintenance of the fragile coalition is all-important.  Her younger child wets his pants while watching TV and they schedule Tuesdays and Saturdays for sex, in vain.  Some media outlets maximize profit, whereas others pursue personal and political agendas.  People who have slept together in the past cannot escape each other’s presence in the elite circles of Copenhagen.  The median voter occasionally surfaces too.

If you are looking for a new “intelligent TV show” to watch, this is my nomination.  I don’t like this as much as my all-time favorite shows, but if you are only going to watch twenty good TV shows in your lifetime, this should be one of them.  You don’t have to care about politics, much less Danish politics, but if you do that will make it all the more intriguing.

You can buy Season one here, and season two is coming out soon.

*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.