The Tyranny of the Hit

I had the misfortune this week to get stuck at Birmingham New Street station for an additional hour and in desperation for something to pass the time I picked up a copy of the Economist (it was on offer and the new Wired wasn’t in!).  Since I stopped working in a library (which was more than a decade ago) I can count the number of times I have read the Economist on one hand but I’m glad I did on this occasion.

There was a really interesting report on the rise in importance of the ‘blockbuster’ to the entertainment business and how the ‘Long Tail‘ concept of infinite choice actually did little to erode it and instead devastated the middle ground, middle of the road content.  There was one particular paragraph that offers an insight into why often critically panned content still makes money hand over fist – in fact I liked it so much I’m going to quote it here;

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.

Another line I liked and one that can some up many of the ills in the movie charts was “the hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.”

The importance of an organisation like the BBC in this blockbuster driven world should not be underestimated – whatever you might think about the funding model if does offer some protection from wider market forces and allow the production of content that does not require a huge audience to warrant its survival.  In the US HBO has led the way for years producing high quality drama that is critically acclaimed but always a rating hit (The Wire being a prime example).

Technology has obviously had a great deal to do with this shift to the extremes and hopefully over time technology will create the means and the audiences to rebuild that middle ground as the world deserves more than Transformers movies and X Factor for its entertainment!