The entertainment industry values timeliness above all:
New is better than old, live trumps prerecorded, original episodes always beat reruns. That’s overwhelmingly obvious in sports and news, and accounts for the manufactured ephemerality of reality and talent shows. Yet it is also implicit in dramas and sitcoms, with their premieres, finite seasons, and finales. The rule holds fast for film as well. From its opening weekend in major theaters, through nearly two years of “release windows,” a movie drifts downward through airlines, hotels, DVDs, cable and network television, and the Internet, decaying in perceived worth.
The desire to be current is in some sense human nature. But when it comes to viewing choices, it also arises from the specific history and revenue model of the entertainment business. In its early years, television was necessarily live, for the technology of broadcasting preceded effective and cheap recording technologies. The first popular shows, like “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” were short serial dramas designed to keep audiences on a fixed daily schedule, each episode ending with some aspect of the plot unresolved. If you missed an installment, you missed it forever and might lose the big story in the bargain.
In normal markets, the most popular products aren’t necessarily the most profitable (think Louis Vuitton). But on network television, where the prices charged for advertising depend on ratings, comparative popularity matters a lot. If some sense of newness or urgency can get viewers from the desired demographic to tune in to one channel rather than another, that can make the difference between success or failure. The upshot is a business whose highest ambition is to get enormous groups of people watching the same thing at the same time: “event television.”
Atop this eventocracy are productions like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, which by managing to grab much of the nation therefore command the highest ad rates, about $4 million and $2 million, respectively. That compares with the $77,000 per spot that “30 Rock,” a smart but under-watched series, commanded at the end of its run. The premium on audience size orients creative decisions toward an ideal embodied by a Jay Leno monologue, avoidant of controversy or anything too weird or challenging. TV shows, in the words of economist Harold Vogel, are “scheduled interruptions of marketing bulletins.” And television itself, as Walter Lippmann, a founder of this magazine, put it, has long been “the creature, the servant, and indeed the prostitute, of merchandising.”