This essay is about show business and the media.
Almost everyone likes a good show. Humanity has had storytellers and jokesters for as long as there have been people, I am sure. I am told that among the Inuit peoples of the far north, they even fought duels using jokes about each other. This sort of dueling saved lives and spared innocent bystanders. Even better, it gave the community something to laugh about. It’s hard to hate while you are laughing.
Storytelling has lots of other benefits besides providing a show. A culture’s traditions, beliefs, explanations for the way the world is, and even its theology can be passed down from parents to children through stories. The Bible, for instance, has many stories in the Old Testament. So we probably can find the origins of show business in the telling of stories. Remember your favorite fairy tales? (I, personally, didn’t like Anderson’s fairy tales, they were too grim. Grimm’s fairy tales were much better because they usually had happy endings.)
At some point in prehistory, some person who was good at telling stories began to earn a living doing so. We have no idea when or where or who that person was but it was probably someone who would walk from village to village with news and stories to tell and who would be fed and treated kindly, perhaps even given an article of clothing and a warm, dry place to sleep. With the coming of physical object money (POM for short) and large towns, the story teller could ask for money and thus live more comfortably.
What leverage did the teller of tall tales have to persuade people to give him money? Well, you don’t think the “cliffhanger” was invented in the 20th century, do you? Imagine telling most of a story but refusing to tell more until there was enough money in the contribution bowl.
People in those times had to rely far more on memory than we do today. There was no written language since writing was just getting started in the form of accounting devices. It would be thousands of years before people wrote stories or anything else on paper or its equivalent. So if you told a story in a village you could be pretty sure that it would be remembered nearly word for word by at least some of the audience. They could repeat the story to others. You had to have more than just the bare bones of the story. You had to be able to tell the story well.
Now there were certain people in these early days of storytelling and POM who needed a particular kind of story to be told. They needed a story that supported their religion and their politics (which were about the same thing in those days). If your stories could be about the gods and goddesses and their dealings with mere mortals you could tell the same set of stories again and again at the times of the various religious observances. Just as we have the Peanuts characters’ stories for the various holidays or the numerous songs about Santa Claus which we hear when Christmas is approaching. In that way, one would not have to keep coming up with new material all the time. When these tale-tellers met on the road between towns, they might well share some stories, those which they did not tell so well themselves, of course.
These story tellers were not getting rich. They were poor and nomadic and often went hungry or cold in the world. In times of war they might be considered to be spies or might actually be spies. They were outsiders and a luxury for the community. In a few cases they became famous. Homer is still celebrated to this day as one of the best storytellers in history. Was Homer the source of his stories or did he borrow from other storytellers? Odds are good that he borrowed most of what he wrote. Just as Shakespeare lifted plots and story lines from others or from traditional stories, so must Homer have taken words, characters, plots, and other devices which were in common usage by the storytellers of his day. Does this mean that Homer deserves no credit for his “not necessarily original” contribution? Of course not: Even if we have identified the wrong human being as the author of Homer’s works, someone, whom we can call Homer, compiled the stories just as we have received them in our day and time.
Did they do it for money? Well, perhaps that was one of their motives, just as money was one of the motives for those who worked in the traveling medicine shows of the 19th century. But that was not the only motive.
Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a wealthy couple who had a son. They were very proud of their son, who did quite well in school. He was handsome, athletic, and popular, even though he got very good grades. Each parent was expecting the best from this golden child. Upon graduation from high school their boy declared that before he entered college he was going to spend a year making his way in the world without his parents’ aid. His father swelled with pride and his mother thought that was just like her independent son. So with a mother’s tears and a father’s firm handshake to start him on his way he left home with only a few dollars and a couple of good suits of clothes.
Time passed and after about a year, they had received only a few early post cards to let them know he was alive. Finally, they got word from an acquaintance that their son had been seen with a circus in a neighboring city. Filled with anxiety and hope, the parents rushed to that town and found the circus. Naturally it was not hard to find. They approached the main office and asked there for their son. They were told he was in the elephant enclosure. Wondering what their son could possibly be doing with elephants they found the proper tent and hesitantly looked into the gloomy interior. What they saw was a lone man wearing dirty old coveralls shoveling elephant manure into a wheel borrow. They approached him from behind and asked if the man knew of their son. The man turned around and sure enough, it was their son. The mother gasped, then reached out to hug this rather smelly young man. The father looked sternly at the boy and demanded to know what he was doing.
“Well, dad, these elephants eat quite a lot and someone has to clean up after them.”
“And just what do you earn for this demeaning job?” his father asked.
“Mostly it’s just room and board with a couple of bucks to spend on Monday night” the son confessed.
His mother sobbed, “Oh my boy. Please come home with us now and work in your father’s office until the semester starts at Harvard.”
Her son recoiled in horror. “What!? And give up show business?”
There are actually lots of psychological rewards in being a storyteller. People pay attention to those who can spin yarns. People enjoy the company of those with interesting stories. I am told that some people will even buy drinks for someone who is that entertaining. People who tell stories get to be someone else for a while, someone who is rich or famous or heroic or, well, almost anything – even horrible and terrifying.
There are also lots of psychological rewards in listening to stories. My favorite time of the school day was when my second grade teacher would read to the class a chapter from a book about the Bobbsey Twins. I suppose that tells you that I’m getting on in years. Not only are the stories fun to hear, but they can be educational in both intended and unintended ways. I find that storytellers reveal quite a lot about themselves by their stories. Consider Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain) and read the parts of his autobiography available to you. It seemed obvious to me that Samuel really was talking about himself and his experiences when he wrote. You can see young Samuel in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. You can see the frontier newsman in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” story. There was the middle aged Samuel in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” We learn Sam’s attitudes and values. We see his culture as if under a magnifying glass. The flaws and virtues of his culture in those times stand out in bold relief. So if you want to understand a culture, listen to its stories or tap your foot to its music – which has its own stories to tell.
Some storytellers used rhymes to make the stories easier to listen to and aid the teller’s memory. Poetry put to a practical use: With poetry and music coming together we get songs, choirs, and operas. The poetry and music add considerably to the emotion and the feeling that goes with any good story. Today, almost any movie will have a musical sound track that helps to get the audience involved, to feeling the proper emotion, to provide foreshadowing, and to sell separately if the songs become popular.
As those traveling medicine shows and minstrel shows illustrated, it was possible to make money, though no one was going to get rich in the times before the printing press. If one were already of the wealthy class, one might make a name for oneself as a storyteller… but for the big bucks, those who were involved in telling stories had to turn to politics, religion, or both. This is where we have to bring in the nature of money.
We have already discussed government and religion as institutions in earlier lectures so I will give them short shrift here to focus on their connection to show business. Political theater is as old as armies and parades. The various forms of religion also have found processionals to be quite effective devices. When an army conquered a foe, after the looting, rape, and pillage was over for the time being, the winners would often march past the defeated peoples in a show of strength and then, upon returning to their homeland, would march the prisoners who would soon be slaves past their citizens to show how successful the rulers were in battle. These productions could be quite expensive as in the triumphs celebrated in ancient Rome or the ticker tape parades down Broadway in New York. The people observing these performances were to be suitably cowed if they were the defeated or suitably proud and supportive of the ruler if they were the winning tribe or nation. Such shows of strength are only necessary or useful when dealing with an opponent. If you watch sports on TV you will have seen the celebration antics of the players upon some notable success. It isn’t simple joy at doing something difficult. You never see a concert pianist leap to his feet and do a dance or scream loudly with wide open mouth upon the completion of a difficult composition. Yet his performance took every bit as much skill and even more practice than the efforts of the athletes. Would there have been the parade for the Moon landing astronauts if the U.S. had not been competing with the U.S.S.R. to be first to the Moon? That parade was an “in your face, Russia” type of event. It was political rather than being simply a celebration. The event was contrived to generate more support for the politicians in power at the time. One can only suppose that it accomplished its purpose since parades are still being used to celebrate the defeat of opponents to this day.
The religions of the world similarly use parades under other names and put on shows. The tales of the storytellers are celebrated over and over, and the familiar stories are once again presented for the edification of the young as well as the gratification of the old. In these cases the expense is to support the religious hierarchy then in power and show how much better “we” are than “they” are – whoever “we” and “they” happen to be in each case. Again, this is simply the use of show business to aid those in power in a competitive situation. In some cases, the religious show is an attempt to “appease the gods”, as when the plague swept across Europe in 1349 and people made a great show of punishing themselves to atone for their sins and stop the Black Death. There is no evidence to suggest that the flagellants succeeded at all in slowing or stopping the plague. Music is usually a part of parades (religious and otherwise) although I don’t believe the flagellants used any.
In some senses we could say that politics and religion were the first instances of show business in human cultures. The religious and political leaders were the first to make a business of shows and spectacles. They had to budget for the performances… and there came into existence occupations which one might consider the forebearers of present day show-business occupations. There would have been the makeup artists, the wardrobe mistress, lighting, scenery to build, and scripts to write and learn. So when they were not working for kings and high priests these technicians were available for public entertainment. Cities generated the audiences with enough money to make entertainment a business that could make a profit. But in those days, entertainment was never the sole reason why a show was successful – nor was entertainment lacking in political or religious imagery. Because shows were viewed by so many people, and because shows could stir up powerful emotions, shows could not help but have a political component which means that they would also have had religious aspects as well. Religion and politics have never been truly separate even with so-called “separation of Church and state.”
This brings us to the juxtaposition of show business and propaganda. Propaganda during time of war is blatant in show business. It’s always easy to get a cheap laugh or a hearty cheer when making fun of the bad guys or being patriotic. Show business people are just as lazy and just as much out for a buck as the rest of us. Because it’s easy to provide propaganda in support of the powers that be and because one can gain money that way, show business is almost always generating propaganda which is sometimes called “advertising.” If you watched those old movies from the 1930s you may have noticed that all the major characters smoked. That was no accident. There were other product placements but none so obvious as the consumption of tobacco. There were also movies which praised the powers that be. Presidents always seemed to make out well in the movies. They were really nice guys even if their policies were getting people killed. Church leaders were humble and pious even when they had a delightful sense of humor. Religious females had similarly noble sentiments and suffered with grace and courage. Meanwhile the poor and minorities did not fare so well. The weakest minorities were foolish, often only there for comic relief, but willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their “betters”. A powerful or dangerous member of a minority might be used as a threat to the good guys but would more likely be a bad guy suitable for being shot out of the saddle or thrown off a cliff. Naturally, minority males were never allowed to touch the heroine unless there was a considerable difference in age. (See Shirley Temple dancing with Bill Robinson.) So show business supported the local power structures by a variety of means. This applies to sex roles as well. As a child I was struck by how helpless the women were in the cowboy movies I saw. If the hero was fighting the bad guy the heroine would do nothing to help in most cases and when she tried to take a hand she always hurt the good guy by being incompetent. This was not how I saw the women in my life. But it was how show business in the 1940s and 50s seemed to want me to view them. It was later that I discovered that the business community wanted women to be consumers rather than having minds and careers of their own. Those helpless women I saw in the movies were the grandmothers of the women I saw on TV in the commercials and the situation comedies. Could you imagine Lucy of “I Love Lucy” fame being a strong western woman helping her man in a fight with an outlaw? Could you imagine mom in “Father Knows Best” making any decisions for herself? It was all propaganda to improve sales and eliminate competition. A woman confined to the home will want to spend money on that home and its furnishings and its appliances. A woman confined to the home does not threaten executives’ jobs by competing with them.
The storytellers define us, educate us, inspire us, and keep us in our places. With the coming of industrialization, show business has even become a big-money industry with considerable power over politics and religion. We are now exposed to and benefit from a multitude storytellers, bards, and minstrels. But whereas at one time almost all storytellers were helping us, supporting us, and doing good things for us… over time, the show business that has evolved from those tales told around the campfire by our distant ancestors has taken on a less beneficial nature. Even if we ignore the use of show business for propaganda purposes by politicians and religious groups, we still have the consequences of advertising, of corporate sports, of internet dominance. As it just so happens, a few days before I started writing this lecture, the FCC voted to preserve net neutrality. But that’s a losing battle: The big money interests which want to control the internet and squeeze as much profit and power from it as they can will not cease in those efforts just because a 3-2 vote goes against them in a federal commission. The threat remains.
Show business is a money-making proposition. In all of history, that money has been what we call physical object money, or POM. To the extent that POM has dominated show business the benefits of entertainment in its various forms has been diminished. When we use show business to indoctrinate children for profit we do harm to those children and the adults they will become. When we use show business to suppress and oppress by political propaganda, we fragment – rather than unite – our societies, reducing the potential productivity of our economies. When we restrict the free flow of ideas through censorship, we impoverish the store of resources available to our technologies. In other words: the usual suspects when it comes to the consequences of our using POM are just as active in show business as they are in all other aspects of our societies. Show business utilizes outright fraud to take your POM against your will. For example, those subliminal messages – the ones that appear in the movies to make you visit the concession stand in the lobby – are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. POM makes us think we can gain only at the expense of others. Show business hammers that point home, even though it is a lie. POM concentrates power in the hands of a few, thus show business and the media are controlled by a few powerful big-money interests.
What happens when the news becomes entertainment rather than a public service? Truth goes by the board. If the news is only important to the degree that it attracts viewers, then the story line and its narrative – the sensationalized – becomes the main motive behind what is selected to present to the audience. The things it is important for the public to learn about current events are ignored. Celebrity trials can dominate the news. Public interest happenings take precedence over events in which the public should be interested. We all remember the meaning of 9/11 in which terrorists killed almost 3000 people and did millions of dollars in property damage. This event has dominated the news for weeks and still is referenced. The terrorists succeeded in attaining their aims. They have had the U.S. government dancing like a puppet on its strings. This success was largely due to the media. Such an attack on humanity was a great story which would play on the fears of billions of people. Think of the use politicians could make of such fears. Think of the beer one could sell in the commercials. Far more people died needlessly that month from hospital errors and from smoking and from auto accidents and from type 2 diabetes and from lack of care due to insufficient or nonexistent health insurance. But those far greater deaths and suffering and expense were not a big story. So we spend trillions and kill hundreds of thousands of innocent bystanders because the media had a big story. The terrorists were never a big threat to the U.S. or to public safety compared to other dangers, causes of death, and expenses – and still are not. ISIS is a creature of the mass media. Without the publicity and attention the media provides, ISIS would not bother to continue killing innocents or destroy priceless historical artifacts.
Of course there are media in every nation. The media in every nation are operating in the context of a POM economy. The same failures and failings that we in the U.S. experience are present in the media of other nations. In North Korea the news is 100% propaganda. Everything there is designed to support the ruling powers-that-be. We have a more diverse set of powers-that-be here in the U.S. But we also have media dominated by the interests of those big-money groups. The weather this winter has deserved its share of the national news. But the trial of a mentally deranged killer has not deserved its fame. If you watch the nightly network news or any of the cable news networks you will find a host of stories about events that are unimportant to the vast majority of those who tune in. That’s not to say those watchers do not care about what they see. They do care. The broadcasts have very carefully selected stories which will arouse the emotions of that audience. So the watchers do care about the people depicted in one way or another. But those stories, by and large, are not things that are or will be important to the lives of those people watching the show. In other words, the news should not be theatrical. Show business masquerading as news harms the public. It takes attention away from things the public should be paying attention to and directs attention to propaganda instead: And all because of POM.
So what would show business be like in a non-POM economy? Oddly enough, people would be paid for telling stories to children. (Do you remember Mr. Rogers Neighborhood?) Naturally, the more the children benefit from those stories the greater the pay. There would be no ads trying to get you to buy things. Can you imagine what TV and the internet would be like with no ads? Have you noticed that you can see all sorts of entertaining things on the internet that are produced by small-money individuals and groups? Somebody has to be providing those videos. With non-POM, videos that benefit people by entertaining them – by educating them, by warning them of dangers, by informing them of opportunities – would earn income for those who produce and distribute such things. The media also includes books. Via such means as the Kindle the cost to produce an additional copy of a book is practically nothing. Therefore, the book trade would not be dominated by a few publishing companies. Those who write books would earn based on the benefit their books provided. Therefore, the authors would want their books to be free to the readers in order to maximize their potential for earnings. In a POM economy, that would be insane. But in a non-POM economy, it makes perfect sense that the more other people benefit the more you benefit regardless of how you help others.
In a non-POM economy there would be very little propaganda. True, people would try to get children to brush and floss their teeth every day. That’s propaganda in one sense. But it’s also going to benefit the child and the adult that child will become. It will reduce the costs in health from bad teeth and gums. It will reduce the need for dental work and thus reduce the need for dentists and dental technicians. On matters that are more subjective such as religion and art, there will undoubtedly be propaganda in a non-POM economy. But a non-POM economy tests beliefs by carefully observing the consequences of human actions. If some propaganda has harmful effects then that propaganda will cost its producers and distributors money in income foregone. Such propaganda will tend to disappear. No committee or branch of government will need to exist or take actions to bring that about. No coercion will be involved. No one will be prohibited from attempting to spread such propaganda but, on the other hand, people can earn money by preventing its spread.
We have already dealt at length with professional sports in another lecture so we won’t go into that here.
The news in a non-POM economy will maximize income for providing information which improves the lives of the viewers. Therefore, truth will be of considerable importance. Bias and slant and spin will reduce income for all those involved in producing the news broadcasts. Therefore, a strict divide between show business and the news will develop.
If you like music as most people do, you will find it to be free with non-POM. It’s so easy and cheap to make another copy of a recording. On the other hand, live performances may well cost money. Live performance is expensive to produce especially when there are lots of special effects that are part of the show. But such performances will not be owned by any corporation. None of the participants will have a contract. (There’s also another essay about contracts in this series.)
So show business with non-POM becomes a true free market for its participants. Each performer, every support staff member, every distributor of product, even the critics are all independent entrepreneurs. No one has to join a union, though professional associations (like the Academy) will continue to exist in order to support the efforts of their members through sharing information and ideas.
Today it’s hard to break into show business. But that’s with POM. With non-POM it’s easy to break in. It’s just hard to become really good at it. Many stars of show business have stories to tell about how they struggled and lived in poverty with low wage jobs while they awaited their big break. In a non-POM economy, they would not have to struggle or live in poverty and could devote all the time they liked to improve their craft. With POM, such things as the casting couch and “it’s all in who you know” that dominate opportunity would be eliminated. Which brings us to the subject of agents.
In a POM economy, agents have acquired a somewhat unsavory reputation. Some of that reputation is deserved. But agents do provide useful services especially in defending the persons they represent against the exploitation of the show business and media corporations. Some agents merely exploit their customers. Some really try to do well by their clients. But that temptation is always there to cheat.
In a non-POM economy, there are no contracts and the agents would not have to defend their clients. In fact, the clients might not even know that one or more persons are working to advance their careers. Anyone who finds talent and brings that talent to the attention of producers and others who work in show business will earn non-POM as that talent is employed to generate net benefits for others. Show business is a special case in this regard only by virtue of the fact that the product is entertainment. Such agents exist throughout the non-POM economy attempting to bring together people who can help each other succeed at whatever they are trying to accomplish. It’s no different in the building trades where an “agent” might suggest a carpenter to a house builder. So suggesting a rock band or an actress or an accordion player to some show business operation would potentially generate income for that suggestion.
In other words, the bad features of show business are almost all due to the nature of POM. Non-POM show business would be not only better in quality, but also in consequences. And there would be no ads.