Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Crystal Bucket

For a while in the mid-90s, I shared a house with a group of strangers who rapidly became friends. We lived in a Queen Anne-style oddity in the Dupont Circle area of Washington. A couple of years out of college, I worked most days at a nearby nonprofit called TV-Free America (“TVFA”), whose mission was to persuade others to turn off their sets. Sharing office space with Public Citizen, the consumer-rights advocacy group formed by Ralph Nader, we stuffed envelopes, answered phones, and plotted with schools and libraries to instigate a national moratorium known as “TV Turnoff Week.”

If my housemates were puzzled by my job choice—destined to cover a gap period—then they didn’t show it. But they never failed to be amused by my behavior on Thursday evenings, when, after a full day of proselytizing for TVFA, I’d retire to our common area, switch on the tube, and watch Seinfeld.

Even while at work, I was ambivalent about the cause. Most of the time I tended to agree that Americans watch too much TV, and that a variety of other fulfilling leisure activities deserved greater recognition. Other times I'd remember how programs such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company had taught me to read at any early age; or I'd mentally salute the zany inventions of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In my most disloyal moments, I'd imagine I was working for a nonprofit whose ostensible mission was diametrically opposed to its real one. Two swift strokes of punctuation, I reasoned, would serve to underscore the liberating effects of the very medium under attack. TV: Free America!

Looking back, I realize that my biggest problem with TV as I then experienced it was how inane much of the programming was. (Was, and let's face it, is.) But my discontent arose at a time when the Internet was still exotic, when a cordless phone, if dropped, could bruise your little toe, and when “subscription TV” meant analog cable.

Fast forward to…well, now. TV-watching claims the largest share of Americans’ daily time, relative to other leisure activities. No surprise perhaps; but these days the share is growing. Over roughly a decade, the amount of time that Americans spend watching TV, on an average day, has climbed by 9.3 percent. For many, this growth is bad news—especially if it comes at the expense of other activities such as reading, exercise, or socializing. Not for Joel Waldfogel, who pulled numbers from the American Time Use Survey to show this pattern. Waldfogel, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, views rising demand for TV as an indicator of the quality of new programs that are being produced and distributed for relatively low cost, via channels and platforms that previously did not exist.

At this point, if you care for such things, you might wonder why my post is named “The Crystal Bucket.” The title comes from a volume of TV criticism by Clive James, who, in turn, took it from a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh. In the late 1970s, James earned renown for his witty reviews of TV programs for the UK’s Observer newspaper. (He went on to host several TV programs of his own, but his lasting legacy are essays, book reviews, memoirs, poems, and a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.) A crystal bucket is a nice metaphor for a TV set. But the suggestion of a vessel or container also supports an analogy crucial to Waldfogel. He uses it to explain why digitization has enabled not only more, but better TV content than would have been produced by traditional broadcast TV (e.g., by the major networks and by premium cable).

“In a world of unpredictability,” Waldfogel writes,

each product brought to market is like a draw from an urn. If the number of draws taken increases, then while many of the new products will be unappealing (and commercially unsuccessful), some of the new products may be very successful. Digitization is important to this story because digitization reduces the cost of bringing products to market, so that some products which previously would have been scotched by gatekeepers are able in the new, low-cost regime to take their draw.

The excerpt comes from a working paper that Waldfogel presented last month at the National Bureau of Economics Research’s (NBER) “Innovation Policy and the Economy” conference. The paper finds that non-traditional broadcast TV (e.g., “pure online,” such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as basic, non-premium cable channels) increasingly accounts for a larger share of “successful” new programs, as rated by professional and lay critics, and as tagged by Emmy nominations.

Why is this so? Waldfogel notes that the ability of video to be distributed “asynchronously” via Internet has removed former capacity constraints. This factor, in tandem with cost efficiencies, has led to “an explosion in new production,” he writes. Much of this growth, and growth of successful programming, is concentrated in non-traditional TV networks. In short, quantity leads to quality. But this phenomenon could not have occurred without what Waldfogel calls a “random long-tail mechanism.” His phrase modifies the business concept of a series of niche markets (“the long tail”) adding up to even greater value than would be supplied by best-sellers or hits. The appeal of new cultural products is inherently unpredictable, Waldfogel asserts. Accordingly,

while much of the new output has been unappealing to most consumers, some of the new products have been very successful. And indeed, it is our central finding that a large and growing share of the successful new products is products that would previously not have been produced or made available to consumers. Digitization has therefore substantially improved the well-being of television viewers.

As for well-being, Clive James has cheerily confessed to “binge-watching,” partly as a respite from worrying about the next move of a leukemia with which he was diagnosed six years ago. Here he is, giving thanks:

And, when we click on Play All and settle back to watch every season of “The Wire” all over again, we should try to find a moment, in the midst of such complete absorption, to reflect that the imagined world being revealed to us for our delight really is an astounding achievement, even though we will always feel that we need an excuse for doing nothing else except watch it.

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