Wednesday, January 6, 2010

a tide of ill-informed good will: more about blockbusters

Well, okay, it looks as though the Economist has already said everying I was trying to say yesterday, and said it better. (Thanks Denys, in the comments at Cinematical.) Seriously, go read the article. It's great. It speaks to why the midlist is currently getting screwed. (Yes, Mordicai, I know you think the lot of us midlisters will improve, and I hope you're right, but at the moment it's horrible.) Here are two paragraphs to whet your appetite:

"Both the hits and the tail are doing well," says Jeff Bewkes, the head of Time Warner, an American media giant. Audiences are at once fragmenting into niches and consolidating around blockbusters. Of course, media consumption has not risen much over the years, so something must be losing out. That something is the almost but not quite popular content that occupies the middle ground between blockbusters and niches. The stuff that people used to watch or listen to largely because there was little else on is increasingly being ignored.

Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In "Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour", William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.
This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.

I really want to explore this notion of belonging, fold in what Jennifer D said yesterday in the comments--about belonging interiorly as well as outside the book. But, eh, today is a busy day, so it will have to wait a wee while.

If any of you have insights meanwhile, share!

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