The Genius Glut

Uh-oh.

House of Cards. Masters of Sex. Girls. Game of Thrones. Parks and Recreation. True Detective. Bob’s Burgers. The Good Wife.  Veep. Mad Men. The Killing. Broad City. Sherlock. Silicon Valley. Orange is the New Black. Fargo. The Americans. Archer. Portlandia. Sons of Anarchy. The League. The Walking Dead. Louie. Nathan for You. Homeland. The Colbert Report.

Verily, we live in a Golden Age of TV -- terrestrial, cable, streaming, telepathic, whatever. And whatever previous TV age you might consider to rank as runner-up, by comparison, is not silver. It is maybe a base metal. Your Show of Shows in the 50s. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in the 60s. All in the Family in the 70s. M*A*S*H in the 80s. E.R. in the 90s. Relative to the astonishing cornucopia of video greatness we now enjoy, they together hailed from the Zinc Age of TV.

How wonderful is that? Unless you are devoted to the major networks, or stuff yourself on so-called reality TV, if you are seeking cultural treasure you’d be hard-pressed to fail. It’s like fishing in a stocked pond. Everybody leaves with a full creel.

So much genius, so little time. No gainfully employed American has the time, no matter how many devices he might own, to consume it all. And the foregoing list is just the stuff being produced right now. We have equal access to Arrested Development. The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights. Breaking Bad. Twin Peaks. 30 Rock. Dexter. Lost. Seinfeld. The Simpsons.

Not to mention I Love freakin’ Lucy.

Oh, and every movie ever made. Oh, and the bottomless candy dish that is YouTube. That question about wonderfulness was not rhetorical. We are living amid an unprecedented genius glut, and this is a double-edged sword if ever there was one. For, absent scarcity, content is not king. Attention is king. 

It is not hard to imagine the future of high-production-value scripted programming. All we need to do is look at the present of independent film…i.e., the ultimate fragmentation nightmare. The digital revolution dramatically lowered cost of production, resulting in an explosion of new titles, on the order of 50,000 per year. And once again, they are cumulative. So if you spend three years developing, financing and producing a film, you will release it into a very, very stocked pond. Sure, all the fishermen go home happy with a creelful, but 99% of the fish are unseen by human eyes.

It is an obviously unsustainable ecosystem, and an unsustainable business model. Thousands of masterpieces languish unnoticed, thousands of filmmakers can never return Aunt Myrtle’s gracious investment, and like some sort of Moliere farce, greatness and audience never quite meet.

This is not an apocalyptic Chaos Scenario future I’m describing. This is a Chaos Scenario right now.

There are some businesses that can prosper in these condition. Netflix, by bundling the long tail of content, is essentially the stocked pond. It makes its money from the fisherman. But for any ad-supported channel, fragmentation is the enemy of revenue. Gluts -- even gluts of genius -- drive down audience and drive down rates. There are no magic beans, there is no alchemy that can change the laws of economics. Accordingly, this magnificent Golden Age of programming is being financed by speculators and the last inhabitants of a dying star…namely, the cable and broadcast infrastructure, which survives increasingly on monthly cable bills the public is decreasingly willing to pay. It’s a supernova, exploding blindingly in its last moments.

Enjoy it while it lasts. And take comfort in this: just as there is no alchemy that can turn zinc into gold, the real gold stays gold forever.

 

 

 

 

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10 comments about "The Genius Glut".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , September 2, 2014 at 9:02 a.m.
    Your column is gold.
  2. Ron Stitt from Fox Television Stations , September 2, 2014 at 11:22 a.m.
    Great piece! This is a real issue. If people don't want to pay monthly bills though, and ads aren't invited to the on-demand party (or the fragmentation is so great their efficacy is hopelessly compromised), then there is no real economic underpinning for the continued creation of quality programming. While technology has democratized the production of video, high production value (writing, shooting, acting, effects, etc) is not so easy to realize. It's not the same thing as cutting a song in your garage for musicians. Much of the writing on this subject ignores this issue, and we seem to imagine a free, technology-driven lunch. Don't be so sure.
  3. Jonathan Hall from American Pop , September 2, 2014 at 11:47 a.m.
    Luckily there are some days completely void of any decent TV, to allow us to catch up via DVR. Which leads us to another benefit of our current "Golden Age" - you can skip commercials! Which brings us back to many of your other spot on rants about the current state of advertising. A fact is that compelling content is a gift to advertisers just not in the traditional commercial format.
  4. Stephen Mindich from phoenix media group , September 2, 2014 at 11:58 a.m.
    Ditto great piece - and Ron Stitt's points are right on target as well - the consumers' expectation of "free lunches" - (or almost free)- and gourmet to boot – along with the advertisers' quest for massive numbers of cheaply acquired eye-balls that for the most part eschew quality has also been a root cause of the demise of newspapers and magazines - both print and online.
  5. Robert McEvily from MediaPost , September 2, 2014 at 1:13 p.m.
    "House of Cards" came to mind first? Shame on you.
  6. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION , September 3, 2014 at 9:45 p.m.
    I love all your stuff, Bob, but this one's brilliant. Few people are talking about this, and no one with your great inferences. I've shared with multiple people, so thank you. And I wanted to take this a little further. Because the thing is, when the tools of production are available to everyone, everyone becomes a producer. More producers produce more content, and in a growing population with growing economies, a larger % get better at producing. People seem to forget, though, that our brains function in time and need time to give attention, and understanding, and even more for "loyalty". The thing is, production can become even faster, but human attention can't be infinitely accelerated. Marx described a crisis of overproduction in industrial capitalism when production surpasses demand and the excess workforce is fired, who in turn have less money to buy products, resulting in an overall effect of economic decline. In the sphere of media (semio-capital), though, overproduction is linked to the relation between the amount of semiotic goods being produced in relation to the amount of attentive time being disposed of. You can accelerate attention by taking amphetamines or Red Bull or Ritalin or using techniques or drugs that give the possibility of being more attentive (Barbara Lippart, where are you)....to try and ensure consumers are more "productive" in the field of attention media systems themselves will demand....but we know how this ends, don't we? Infinitely growing demand for what's a finite neurocognitive resource (attention) creates a ceaseless stream of attention-demand on the brain it can’t meet. Just navigating any contemporary urban environment, and not even a megapolis, or even sitting in a cafe, presents people with hundreds of flashing signs, adverts, audio-transmissions, moving images, and so on and so on...forget about good content and TV, there's a cacophony of signs and chaos, noise and interruptions, accelerating, multiplying, overlaid and overlapping, superimposed on the made physical environment -- the human nervous system's like a frog in a slow boil -- eventually it can't cope. All this activates people's natural survival response mechanisms, tuned to sudden movements and rushes of sound and big emotions -- people carry out how many assessments of threats a day, a week, a month, a lifetime? So it seems that the real genius here is pharma-capitalist production -- because it produces its own consumers through an ever-growing "media content" system. Brilliant. +Bonus: gun sales just keep going up.
  7. Dario Veret from http://essaybasics.com , September 4, 2014 at 4:49 a.m.
    Thank you for a good post. _______________________________________ D.Veret from http://essaykitchen.com
  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , September 5, 2014 at 12:38 p.m.
    Genius column.
  9. David Cohea from Reed Brennan Media Associates , September 8, 2014 at 8:57 a.m.
    Genius? You set the bar way to high for too many of these ham-handed content dumps. People who eat out all the time have a hard time discriminating what constitutes good food; the same, I think, can be said of fishing for minnows in the binge. Chaos schmaos, it's just white noise.
  10. David Cohea from Reed Brennan Media Associates , September 9, 2014 at 9:28 a.m.
    Apologies for the vitriol, didn't mean to troll ... I really don't mean to impugn quality TV; it's just that it's hard to assign the handle "genius" to the full roster lauded in the post. Some of those series shone brightly for a short while and then had a long dim half-life--stellar staying power, but not sterling content. The fragmenting torrent is something to grieve, but I suspect the good will find a golden channel. Or we can just go read good books.