Alisa Miller on the US Media

In an oldish TED talk I just got around to watching, Alisa Miller, CEO of Public Radio International, begins with an argument I agree with: that US media coverage is heavily weighted towards the trivial and towards a limited range of international stories, and that this is some kind of problem.

But as she goes on, our points of view diverge sharply. She asks, rhetorically, why this problem has come to be, and answers: “The reality is, is that [sic] covering Britney is cheaper” than covering international news. This may be so, but it’s probably more relevant that covering Britney makes way more money.

Let’s go with an overwraught analogy, comparing Britney and international coverage to two very different movies that I love: Halloween (1978) and Sideways (2004). According to Box Office Mojo, the first cost $325,000 to make, and has grossed $47,000,000 domestically. But its 8 franchise films have seen a combined domestic gross of another $228,000,000 or so.1 It’s reasonable to think that more cheap sequels and remakes could profit similarly well.

Sideways, on the other hand, cost $16,000,000 to make and grossed $71,000,000 domestically. Not bad, to be sure, and all the talk of a new mid-cap Hollywood model really came out of Sideways‘s success. But it’s reasonable to assume that, after just four years, the well has run more or less dry. Will Sideways keep earning at the pace Halloween and its franchise have? Will there be a sequel? Will there be a genre of thoughtful boys-will-be-bourgeois romps that emerges around the film’s success, in the way that the modern slasher film really emerges out of Halloween‘s?

To paraphrase the 8 ball, all signs point to no. The difference parallels the one Miller points to, between Britney coverage and international stories. It’s not so much about how much cheaper the one is to make—though the difference betwen $325,000 and $16,000,000 is significant, even adjusted for inflation.

Rather, it’s about whether the body of films or news that will emerge from one investment can sustain itself. In Hollywood, the question is answered by moviegoers, represented by box office figures. In the network media, the question is answered, by and large, by the complex relationship between stories, ratings, and advertising dollars. I’m very, very confident that the networks have, with a scientific precision Newton would envy, determined that they can make more money with more Britney than with more international coverage.2

And who’s to blame for this? Ultimately, it’s hard to hold the networks responsible, as Miller wants to. If they buck the viewers, they go into crisis. As I recall, this happened a few years back, amid talk one or all of the network news bureaus might collapse. It seems some combination of viewers with bad priorities and our free-market economy is at fault, and that’s too complex a culprit to support the emotional simplicity of blame.

As Miller asks, “Is this distorted view what we really want for Americans in our increasingly interconnected world?” Of course not. So what do we do? We give to NPR and PRI, we watch and read UK publications, which have (depending on which one you look at), government support or a more internationally-minded audience or both. We identify the problem, as is Miller, in public forums. (I shy away from commending her because she is, after all, CEO of an interested party.) We write on our blogs, talk to our friends, join our FaceBook groups. Is all that enough? It’s hard to know, but what good does blaming the networks do? What ends can come from that line of argument?

1: The production budgets of these other Halloween films are mostly irrelevant. First, they are similarly low with one or two exceptions—for example, Halloween H20, which cost $17,000,000 in 1998 and has already outgrossed the original at $55,000,000+. More to the point, though, as each film can be seen as paying for the next out of its profits. [Back to text]

2: I should note Miller does cite a Pew study in which the percentage of “Americans who say they closely follow global news most of the time grew to over 50%.” But surveys are notoriously unreliable indicators of respondent’s actual preferences and behaviors. If there’s one thing the free market does well, it’s tell us where the real money is to be made. [Back to text]

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