The most consistent comments that came from my Letter to the Millennials was around this question.
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is.
Something strange is happening in our culture. When I look at the Chart of the top box office movies of the year, I have to go a long way down the chart to find a movie that might possibly be considered for an Oscar. It’s as if we have lost our sense of ambition as artists. Where is the big sprawling epic like The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia or Apocalypse Now? Must every big budget movie be a cartoon derivative? Even the great artists like Scorsese and Spielberg have been limited in their ambitions by the current studio system. Saving Private Ryan was made in 1998 and Minority Report was made in 2002 and Spielberg noted that he almost couldn’t get Lincoln financed. I remind my students that the movies are being made for their generation, not mine, so it is there choices that are determining what’s showing on Friday night.
Many of the artists with larger ambitions are migrating to the television business, where at least longer, character driven stories are catching the public imagination. But even in TV, there are real signs of trouble. The rise of the reality show is a rational response for a TV system that no longer makes sense.
How We Got Here
In general, when technology leads art, things get a little screwed up. The “500 Channel Universe” of John Malone’s imagination had no real purpose for existing, except to prove that it could be done. So now the programmers of American TV have to fill up 84,000 hours of programming per week, even though the average household watches only 17 channels of the 500 on offer. Now we all know that cable channels repeat the same program some times as much as three times per day. And we also know that some of the networks simply rent their channel to infomercial hucksters to fill up the endless inventory space. The networks in turn have to convince advertisers that there is a really committed fan base to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo which will sit through their commercials rather than fast forwarding through them on a DVR. Most of all, this programming must be cheap to produce, featuring people more interested in “celebrity” than money. What this and the broadband Internet has also produced is content for millions of niches—-capable of satisfying the desire for mastery of even the most obsessive fans of an entertainment property or any other “discretionary activity”, such as hoarding.
Needless to say, in an on demand world, pumping out 24/7 of a marginal cable channel, that reaches 100,000 people a day, is a really dumb idea. As John Seely Brown points out, we have long since moved from a world of push media to a world of pull media. This is not to say that sports and news will not remain in the live, linear channel format. But almost everything else could be streamed in Internet Protocol High Def Video to any device—TV, Tablet, smartphone—that is connected to the network. Compare the economics of Netflix to a standard broadcast network. Netflix basically has to produce 3 or 4 new series a year in order to keep it’s subscribers happy. The rest of the content can be licensed from third parties. By contrast a standard TV network has to fill up at least four hours a night, seven nights a week of original programming. As Barry Schwartz pointed out in Scientific American, “Logic suggests that having options allows people to select precisely what makes them happiest. But, as studies show, abundant choice often makes for misery.” Bruce Springsteen told it all before.
I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills
With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills
Man came by to hook up my cable TV
We settled in for the night my baby and me
We switched ‘round and ‘round ‘til half-past dawn
There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
But the real problem is not “nothin’ on”. In fact we may be in a golden age of television drama. But as any viewer of last week’s Emmys can attest, the number of great shows can be counted on two hands, while as I pointed out earlier, the total output of the existing TV system is hundreds of thousands of hours—much of it toxic waste. My guess is the satisfaction of watching Honey Boo Boo is the feeling of superiority. No matter how screwed up your life is, you feel smarter than these crackers.
So you ask the question, what harm does it do to have endless shows like Pawn Stars, Hoarders or Honey Boo Boo on the air? I tried to wrestle with this question in my book, Outlaw Blues.
We all know the basis of Gresham’s Law, which is “bad money drives out good.” But it took the Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof to clarify this notion of information asymmetry in a paper called, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism”. Akerlof says that when you are buying a used car you assume the worst — it’s a lemon — in your negotiation stance. Thus the seller of a really good used car always loses out. No one will pay for more than “average quality”. The average consumer of media in our Broadband universe is like the buyer of the used car, she assumes the content is “of average quality” and thus the rise of what Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson calls Free: The Future of a Radical Price. If the You Tube video I’m about to watch turns out to be a “lemon”, I have lost nothing so long as it is free, except my attention to the Google ad accompanying the video.
My guess is this proliferation of media has essentially conditioned us to expect the lemon, but also expect that we should be able to get almost any piece of entertainment for free. What the proponents of the 500 channel universe and the wizards at Google are trying to do is to repeal the laws of supply and demand. In the traditional TV model before the 500 Channel Universe, this was the ad business.
But in a 500 Channel or Google Ad Sense world, where there is an almost infinite supply of ad inventory, this is the business model.
As anyone looking at Google, Yahoo, Turner Broadcasting, A & E can tell you, when supply of ad inventory overwhelms demand, prices fall.
What Comes Next?
My guess is that we are about to enter a TV Revolution, which for lack of a better word I call “Cloud TV”. At the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab I work with an amazing company called EPB. That stands for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s a municipally owned utility that has deployed a 1 Gbps Fiber Optic Network to 50,000 homes in their market. What EPB’s network would mean would be that you could be streaming 3 different Ultra High Definition programs on demand into three TV’s (or tablets) in a home at the same time. As I see it, all the big providers—Discovery, AMC, Turner, A & E would have a logo on the home screen right alongside HBO, ESPN, Netflix and Hulu. You could search for any program on your tablet, which would act as an interface to the TV. Some of the channels would be ad supported and some would be subscription. There would still be some live “linear channels”, but they would be mostly confined to sports and news. If more cities were able to follow EPB’s lead (with the support of the FCC) we might have real competition in the Broadband business instead of the duopoly we are currently living in. Big cable and telecom companies will fight this, but it’s a battle worth having.
I believe the economics of the business would be far more efficient. You wouldn’t have to make so much filler junk and the supply demand economics of the advertising business would come back into balance. What would also happen is that the role of the curator (once called the critic) might become crucial to this ecosystem. Of course this still doesn’t answer my original question of why NCIS is so much more popular than True Detectives. You seem to feel that trashy cinema like Transformers is an easy escape in stressful times. That’s probably true, but Hollywood has always been good at escape. We still watch Singin’ In The Rain fifty years after it was made. Will we be able to say the same thing about Transformers?
The Next Generation of Artists
Here is what I want for the next generation—the opportunity to make art that lasts. While I may admire the wit and ingenuity behind Epic Rap Battles of History, I don’t think it passes the “who cares test”. David Lean has been dead for more than 20 years and yet we still are blown away by a body of work for the ages. We need to create a movie, TV and music business that can support that kind of artistic aspiration. So we have to be more focused with our attention.Patronize the good stuff and don’t just let the toxic waste of the reality culture run on silently on a TV in a room no one is watching. After my first letter a friend wrote me to say that there has always been a cultural 1%, and that maybe I should just accept this. Beethoven and Mozart. Picasso and Cezanne. Lennon and McCartney. Coppola and Scorsese. The kids that will lead us into a new renaissance “will have to do more than their fair share. To whom much is given, much is expected.”
He’s probably right. But only if there is a business structure to support their grandest dreams.