Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Supplying American Idol

But why is it so popular? Sid took the neo-classical argument of demand, then supply: people demanded it, so Fox supplied it. Simple economics.

I'm not so sure. Is it demand, then supply, or supply, then demand? Traditional economics assumes that the market merely responds to consumers' wishes: if we crave gas guzzling SUVs, that's what Ford will make; if we want vapid, mindless television programming, that's what ABCNBCCBSFOX will make. Neo-classical (i.e. the kind you learn in college) economics takes as its initial assumption that people are rational, and that their explicit decisions are perfect reflections of their internal, even subconscious, desires.

But what if that's not true? What if people are not only irrational (which Daniel Kahneman recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating) but, to be blunt, mindless sheep who take rather than make cues? Is it me, or does it seem that television has gotten increasingly dumber over time? If so, is that because viewers have becoming mentally lazier, and implicitly demand television that demands little to no mental output, or is it flipped? Is it that networks produced empty TV--programs where the resolution was swift, where critical thought was not required, where the answers would be delivered to the couch by platter--we then got addicted, and the final demand followed?

I'm inclined to believe the latter. I tend to view fast food and television as more or less the same. Ray Crock realized that people became addicted to his hamburgers and milkshakes, and McDonalds took off. Over time, they've perfected their formula--adding sugar to the french fries, for instance--to become as addictive as possible, as did cigarette companies like Philip Morris and RJR. It wasn't that people wanted their product first, then, but rather they created the demand, and then the demand followed. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Still, I don't imagine it's that one-sided, and I take a certain amount of solace in that. Because if you look at what's happening in the fast-food industry now, it seems that healthy options are becoming more and more prevalent: McDonalds advertising salads. Where is this coming from? I like to believe that a critical mass of people--through education, through heart disease, through childhood obesity--recognized the nutritional emptiness of fries and pies and began to demand something better. In that sense, it was supply, then demand, followed by a demand, then supply rebuttal.

So as people tire of having their minds numbed, will networks begin to offer more thoughtful programming? I hope so. I'm inspired by the fact that American Idol is now being challenged in popularity by Dancing with the Stars; even though the latter isn't exactly a documentary on rocket science, it is rooted in positivity--people watching others dance well and appreciating beauty--rather than negativity, the manna for American Idol. (Maybe people watch it for the good singers, though I'd imagine that just as many tune in to laugh at the bad singers who make fools of themselves). Even if we're not necessarily getting smarter in this instance, at least we're getting nicer.

Maybe American Idol serves as a good social commentary, then, and maybe we are indeed on the upward swing of the parabola: the slope has finally turned positive. Still, it is worth looking at other facets of our daily experience to see where we're heading. While IMing might spell doom for the complete sentence, are blogs conversely helping people become more literate and expressive?

It's easy to shake a fist at corporate boards and TV producers, and some of the anger and frustration is probably justified. But if we're more than just sheep, then maybe there are examples out there--salads, Planet Earth--that could give us hope. Thoughts?


Andrea said...

Well, I'm a hypocrite for saying this, since I'm an avowed American Idol fan and fast food junkie - but I agree with you. I recently found out that over 500 million people voted in season 4 of Idol, while only 122 million bothered to vote in the 2004 presidential elections. That's pathetic - we care more about insuring that someone gets a CD gig than insuring the furture of our country.

Anonymous said...

TV has decayed to a troubled low, I agree. What is worse is that when the good shows come around, they don't stay because the actors start to demand more money and the show no longer is feasible (i.e. Sopranos, which, by the way, was a show that worked on so many levels and that I truly appreciated for its dialogue and writing.) I digress.

That is why The Simpsons has worked for so many years - I mean how much can a voice over really demand? And there are always new cartoonists who will do it cheaper...again, I digress.

Reality television is anything but reality. Unless you are living in the matrix. Man, I wish I took the blue pill.

Ana Palao said...

The TV of the apartment that a friend and I are renting in Bogotá has one single channel. We used to have two, but something mysterious occurred, and we are now stuck with just one. Every time we turn the dumb box on, we do it with the hope that we’ll find something digestible, not necessarily intellectual, but at least entertaining, something to listen to while we knit (yes, we knit). And every time we begin by laughing at the soap operas, the bad acting, the awful music, and the even worse dialogues. Soon our humour turns into annoyance, as we see the sex stereotypes shamelessly repeated over and over (women as careless superficial wining dolls, men as macho money-earners). 5 minutes and we turn it off. Other times, however, instead of soap operas we get gossip programs about “celebrities” (what has the infamous Paris Hilton done this time?).
This is public TV in Colombia. One might argue that this is not a rich country, that the level of education is low, etc, and so most people demand that type of garbage (excuse my bluntness). However, also in the Spanish TV it’s hard to find anything minimally worth seeing –except the National Geographic documentary, which is significantly shown at the time of the “siesta”.
Thomas L. Friedman writes, in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, about globalization and more specifically about how the improvement in communications/technology has contributed to ‘democratize’ certain areas that before were left to a few. TV programming is probably one of those areas impregnated by democracy, where the audience dictates what’s on, and when. Certain mechanisms that are installed in our TVs –don’t ask me how- can tell what programmes we, the audience, prefer to watch. Isn’t that amazing?
Of course, we can only choose among a pre-defined range of choices, but still, that’s democracy, right? If soap operas had very low levels of audience they would stop producing any of them.
I am of the –some would say conservative- opinion that public TV has the duty to include programs with cultural content, first to attend the rights of the minority who is not interested in Miss Hilton, but also to educate its audience, in the hope of contributing to create a more thoughtful society.
At least my friend Lisa and I can hold on to the hope that the other channel, the one we don’t have access to, is showing something better.

Saume said...

Ah, Friedman. Interesting guy.

karim kai said...

It's a good point about public broadcasting a la PBS and NPR. The problem with the market-driven formula, I think, is that progressive and more informed readers/viewers/listeners tend to be in the minority, but it's the creative and demanding minority that's historically pulled societies towards progress. (The Civil Rights movement was hardly a majority effort, after all).

Yet so long as we measure programs simply by Neilsen ratings--i.e. the number of people who are watching a show at a given time--then advertisers will flock to the most populated, which often means the lowest-common-denominator, shows, thus perpetuating more of the same.

Still, the effect of the minority will be felt, and the denominator--however wide the chasm--will at least rise a bit. It's interesting how often you see the bell curve/normal distribution, and I guess it's somewhat pointless to shake your fist at the thick clump in the middle.

That tangent aside, and to come back to Ana's point about public broadcasting, what would happen if they pass legislation allowing cable operators to offer stations a la carte, where people can simply pick and choose (rather than paying a flat fee and getting all of the 100+ channels). Companies like ESPN and Discovery would likely love that, as it would effectively cause TV to be cheaper, but what would happen to the more esoteric stations with a more limited (yet more passionate, you could argue) viewership? Similarly, what would happen if they void net neutrality, thus allowing ISPs to charge different amounts for different sites? Would media be consolidated down to the rich few sites? What would that do to the, as Friedman has called it, democratization of information?

Anonymous said...

hey mr.logue u know who i am i was one of ur student but i am not going to say my name but maybe you'll remember me when i say 'follow ur dreams' well i hope u are sad that i had to see u leave WMMS