18 February 2016

Usual Suspects

I'm pissed off at media moguls again... and even more so at their sycophants, whose words seem to suggest ways to improve things in the entertainment industry. Two items in diverse locations actually point at something else (besides the obvious bad faith).

First up, one of the usual suspects. At HR, we find this not-so-subtle "aside" that is the actual point of the article:

That’s because it’s almost impossible in this Peak TV environment where an excess of (often very good) scripted material from an excess of outlets has watered down the overall viewing numbers in a way that makes almost no financial sense for big-tent broadcast networks.

* * *

The only way to have the money invested in creating network television make any kind of sense to the ratings that they deliver is to first upend the entire system so that the cost of making shows and paying talent is more in line with what’s going on in cable because the majority of shows on broadcast networks are now regularly returning cable ratings — on a good day.

Tim Goodman, "As Paul Lee Era Ends at ABC, Channing Dungey Steps Into a No-Win Job," Hollywood Reporter (17 Feb 2016) (emphasis added).

Second, a very not-so-usual suspect concerning an even more usual suspect.

[Stephen Hull is] an editor for the Huffington Post, and was asked why the HuffPo doesn’t pay its writers.

I love this question, because I’m proud to say that what we do is that we have 13,000 contributors in the UK, bloggers… we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.

See, you’re inauthentic if you get paid fairly for your work. You can trust someone if they did the work for free, which implies that you ought to be deeply suspicious of people who expect to get paid.

P.Z. Myers, "Stephen Hull Must Work for Free," Pharyngula (18 Feb 2016) (italics in original).

It's not just that both of the mouthpieces point at a "need" to reduce, or even entirely eliminate, compensation paid to those actually creating the works as financially necessary for the distributors' profitability. It's that the suspects in question (Messrs Goodman and Hull) have — as is all too usual — put the cart before the horse. In both online journalism (the cognitive dissonance in comparing Mr Goodman's employer to "journalism" is entirely intentional) and television-based entertainment, bad product leads to bad profits... and prophets. The very existence of HuffPo is supposed to fill a content vacuum; it's very difficult to fill a vacuum with only stale cotton candy. Or at least to fill that vacuum in a way that will withstand any further disruptions like, say, actual and effective antitrust enforcement — even just once (PDF).

There's a subtler problem with the imperative to improve short-term profitability by decreasing costs as the primary (and, too often, only) method. It's not that waste and inefficiency are good things; it's that treating the people who produce nonfungible material presumptively as sources of waste and inefficiency is just slightly counterproductive. Financial capital is certainly entitled to attempt to accrete... but doing so without allowing any other actor to also benefit — indeed, explicitly disfavoring nonfinancial sources of capital, labor, and logistics — leads to just a few problems with ensuring that a system is stable. Financial capital (or, for that matter, any other overprioritized element) then ends up in a self-scavenging positive feedback loop; and when one hears "positive feedback loop" regarding human behavior, one can almost always anticipate a negative outcome.

The lesson that was missed by Apple and its publisher-conspirators in Wormyfruit is that nothing in the arts, entertainment, or even journalism is merely fungible widgets. The appropriate and proper entry barrier is improving the quality of one's goods (while not excessively raising price) such that a new market entrant fails of its own uncreativity and, perhaps, incompetence. Unfortunately, that also requires recognizing that the purpose of a corporation (or any other business entity) is as part of a system, not as an isolated actor... and analyzing anything in the entertainment industry (or pretty much anywhere else) as part of an interactive system is definitely not in fashion.