The Pursuit of Bada-Bing?

April 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Why is the Mafia so popular?

“The Sopranos” ratings were off a bit for the season premiere, only about 6.7 million viewers. That’s still amazingly high for a show on a cable network that you have to pay extra for. In past seasons, it was getting 10-12 million viewers, way ahead of anything else on cable and much network TV as well. (“Entourage,” another HBO show, is considered a success with 3.8 million viewers.)

At the movies, “The Godfather” is one of the biggest box office films in history, and other Mafia films like “Godfather II” and “Goodfellas” have also done well. And it’s not just the general public who admire these gangsters. “The Sopranos” gets raves from the critics; gangster movies frequently turn up at the Oscars. Academics, too, are not immune to the seductions of Mafia media. Some universities offer entire courses on these films and TV shows.

Not everybody is cheering. There are always a few malcontents who don’t love the Mafia. Over at the Huffington Post, Philip Slater in this week’s column asks, “Why is it that so many of my countrymen seem endlessly fascinated with the activities of a bunch of dumb thugs?”

Slater, a former sociology professor, has an answer, one that’s not particularly flattering. “Americans love the mafia because it represents a totally authoritarian system in which mistrust, cynicism, slavish obedience, and rash, violent decisions prevail. That seems to be the kind of world most Americans are looking for today.”

Well, not exactly. I suspect that what Americans find attractive in the Mafia (at least in these media portrayals) is its moral clarity. Here is a system that rewards its virtues —loyalty, respect, honor — and punishes transgressions surely and swiftly. If your real world is full of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, if virtue is not always rewarded and wickedness not always punished, you might take comfort at the end of the day in the unclouded vision of the media’s mafias.

Movies and TV are like dreams — stories we tell ourselves in the dark — and their relation to real life is as complicated as the relation between dreams and waking life. Sometimes these stories reflect the reality we live, sometimes they reflect an ideal we are striving for. But sometimes they provide a taste of the social and psychological nutrients that we don’t get enough of in everyday life. Slater himself wrote a book forty years ago about America’s unfulfilled need for community —The Pursuit of Loneliness, a fine book, still in print and still selling. Does the success of a show like “Friends” tell us that Americans now have community and spend a lot of time hanging out together in groups, lovingly involved in one another’s lives? Or does it tell us the opposite — that the American culture Slater saw in Pursuit is still with us, that we are mostly bowling alone, and that our lack of community is what brings us back week after week to be vicarious members of NBC’s happy, friendly bowling team?

If “Friends” is a response to the felt need for community, Mafia movies may be a response to the desire for order and control. Our fascination with Mafia authoritarianism in the media may reflect the frustrations of freedom and democracy. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, “democracy is messy.” For some segment of the population, the neatness of a truly authoritarian government would be a tempting reality. But at some level, we also recognize that it’s a package deal, and that along with the clarity, honor, and other virtues, come the perils that Slater points out — the mistrust, rigidity, and lack of freedom.

Slater is obviously and justifiably disappointed with his fellow Americans these days. He sees a link between ratings for “The Sopranos” and the vote for George Bush. “Americans were so willing to elect and re-elect the most secretive, despotic, and anti-democratic administration in the history of our nation.”

Even if that’s what Bush voters had in mind (and most of them probably didn’t), Bush will still have been in office for only eight years, and in the last two of those years his power will be greatly checked. Undoubtedly, he will have been able to do considerable long-term damage to foreign policy and perhaps to the economy and the environment. But as for government, in the long run Bush may have done for the Republican party what Goldwater did for it in 1964, and he may have done for secretive manipulation what Nixon did for it in 1974. You can see reversal, the swing towards the democratic (and the Democratic) in the election of 2006.

Authoritarianism has always had some allure to some Americans, especially in times of crisis. In the Depression, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin played to this sentiment with some success. But in the end they failed, and most people today have never heard of them. To some extent, it’s because of the eventual good sense of the American people, who can distinguish between entertainment and reality. They may like to watch NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean that they want to go out on the highway and smash up their cars. But more likely, our success in avoiding a Godfather government stems from the enduring institutions of our society and government.

Where There's Smoke

April 10, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a campaign afoot to have movies rated R if they have smoking in them. I’ve seen signs on cabs, on bus stops. If a studio wants its movie rated PG-13, it’ll have to hide the cigarettes.

“What a dumb idea,” says my son the teenager.

I remember that a year or so ago I took him and a friend of his to see “Good Night and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film about Edward R. Murrow, CBS, and their clash with Sen. McCarthy. The boys were fifteen and thirteen (my wife took the friend’s sister, age eight, to see the unfortunate remake of “The Pink Panther” on another screen at the Cineplex).

“Good Night and Good Luck” did a great job of capturing the feeling of the early 1950s— the clothes, the hair, the political climate, the mores. Shooting the film in black&white helped too; the film was about television, and that’s what television in the fifties looked like. And everyone smoked.

The movie was rated PG (“for mild thematic elements and brief language”).

My sample of movies is hardly representative (my annual N rarely hits two digits). But now there’s a report documenting smoking in films in the last five years (hat tip to Eszter). The sample was just about every movie produced in the US, 1999 through 2006 (earlier studies had sampled only the most advertized or popular films). The researchers counted every tobacco “incident” (actual smoking, brand displays, or signs). They then multiplied the number of incidents by the box office sales to get a measure of overall “impressions.” These numbers were up in the billions. After all, if a movie that sold 5 million tickets had only 2 “incidents,” that’s 10 million “impressions” for that one film.

Here’s the trend for the last eight years.

I have no idea what caused the crash of 2003 (a 33% overall drop, 40% in PG films), but since then, the PG numbers have held steady. Still, the anti-smoking forces are worried since there’s evidence that smoking in films does push kids towards smoking in real life.

The article has much interesting information, with breakdowns not just by MPAA rating but also by studio. Disney, for example, especially in their PG-13 and R-rated movies, has been among the smokiest.

But it’s this chart that I find especially interesting.
The authors use it to argue for the effectiveness of slapping an R-rating on smoky movies. Since R films lose at the box office to movies with less forbidding ratings, studios will thank even their toughest characters for not smoking. Hollywood being what it is, studios would gladly sacrifice a little verisimilitude for a lot of ticket sales.

But something else in this chart should encourage the anti-smokers: apparently, non-smoking sells. In every rating category, movies without smoking have the larger box office gross. And the differences are nothing to sneeze (or cough) at— nonsmoking gives a boost of 50% boost in the R films, 25% in the G through PG-13 categories. Could differences this large — averages over all films released — be mere random variation? And if there is a real relationship, what’s the cause? More importantly, does Hollywood know about this? When studio executives are worried about the sales of some film they’re about to release, do they tell the director go back to the editing room and cut the cigarettes?

(Thanks to Max for catching my errors in the earlier version of this post.)

Real Simple Stuff

April 7, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Real Simple was #2 on Adweek’s “Hot List” of magazines, just behind O, The Oprah Magazine. Nobody beats Oprah. Seven of the top ten on the Hot List were women’s magazines. Adweek’s editor said, “Young women, older women, women obsessed with living more spiritual, less- cluttered lives — you name it, there is a magazine for almost any advertiser looking to reach women.”

I looked at the latest issue Real Simple. Advertising revenues are up, and the magazine sits on the newsstand shelf fat and prosperous with all those ad pages. It has articles on things like “Six Products for Organizing Your Laundry Room” and “Ten Organizing Problem-Solvers: Restore order in your home with these inventive products.” Suddenly, Real Simple seemed a bit more complicated. It’s an irony others must have pointed out, but since I can’t Google up anything along those lines, I’ll state the obvious:

Companies are rushing to advertise in Real Simple for the same reason they advertise anywhere — because they think the ads will get people to buy their stuff. So either the advertisers don’t know what they’re doing (unlikely) or Real Simple readers are caught in an apparent contradiction. In order to really simplify their cluttered lives they’re buying more stuff.

I admit that I don’t know any of these Real Simple readers, but the image I get is of an addict, a product junkie. The essence of addiction is the idea that the solution to your problem is more of what caused the problem in the first place. The heroin addict thinks he can solve his withdrawal symptoms with another shot of smack. The compulsive gambler thinks he can climb out of the abyss of debt that his gambling has put him in if only he can just make a few winning bets.

If I wanted to lead a more spiritual, less cluttered life I would be getting rid of the stuff in my house (and in my house that clutter includes a lot of magazines and other printed material). I would be cancelling magazine subscriptions, giving stuff away, throwing stuff out. If we have too much, it seems the solution should be less not more. Of course, there are few social rewards for having less, and our whole society and economy are geared towards encouraging the desire for more products. In fact, it seems that what Real Simple is offering is not simplicity but order.

The problem is not that you have too much stuff; the problem is that your stuff is not well organized. The ideal Real Simple reader (ideal from the point of view of the advertisers and probably the publisher, Time Warner) is the woman who tries to achieve a more spiritual and less cluttered life by buying the products featured in the ads and the articles in this magazine and using them to impose order on the chaos. Once the clutter gets organized, she’ll have room for more, more, more.

It makes sense, at least within the context of American culture. Appropriately enough, number four on the Adweek Hot List is a magazine called More.

American Idol - The Wisdom of Crowds?

April 3, 2007
Posted by Jay LivingstonI’ve posted here before about “prediction markets” and “the wisdom of crowds.” The Superbowl, the Oscars. Now it's American Idol time.

Many people wouldn’t have thought Sanjaya Malaker would still be on American Idol this late in the game. Now the odds on him have dropped to 18:1 (bet $100 and win $1800), more or less depending on which bookmaker. Melinda Doolitle is even money or better to win the whole thing (bet $100 and win $80).
Melinda Doolittle 4:5
Jordan Sparks 5:2
Blake Lewis 4:1
Lakisha Jones 5:1
Sanjaya Malakar 18:1
Chris Richardson 25:1
Gina Glocksen 30:1
Phil Stacey 35:1
Haley Scarnato 50:1

One of the things Sanjaya has going for him is Howard Stern. Yes, Mr. Stern isn’t just about strippers and sex toys. He takes a strong interest in culture and aesthetics, and recently he’s given a big boost to a grassroots movement that emerged from the website Vote for the Worst That site is encouraging fans to do just what the name says and vote for Sanjaya.

American Idol is resolutely democratic— the performers with the most votes stay. So if you can get the majority of Americans to vote for someone, he wins even if he’s the worst candidate. It might work for Howard Stern. It certainly worked for Karl Rove.

It works because American Idol is just that — American— and it exemplifies some of the curiosities and contradictions in American culture. To begin with, it turns something qualitative (the entertainment value of a performer) into something quantitative (a number of votes). Other contests do something similar, Olympic figure skating for example. But with American Idol, as Howard Stern is trying to show, that quantitative measure may have little to do with quality.

More interesting— and this is what seems peculiarly American about it— it is both democratic and egalitarian. The decision as to who is best is made not by experts but by anyone who sends in a vote. The assumption behind it is that we are all just as good as the so-called experts at making these decisions.

Americans don’t like people who come across as thinking they are better or smarter, and we especially don’t like those who claim to have more refined tastes. For a long time now, Republicans have won a lot of votes by attacking Democrats as the party of chardonnay-sipping, brie-eating, PBS-watching snobs. To be sure, on AI there is one critic who makes no bones about the superiority of his taste. But he’s the man we love to hate, Simon Cowell. And of course, he’s not an American.

There may also be something especially American in how we respond to these prizes. If we reject expert advice on matters of taste, if my judgment is just as good as anyone else’s, why don’t I just make my own decision? Can’t I decide for myself who’s the best and then buy his or her album?

But obviously Americans’ personal preferences are greatly affected by the outcome of these contests, whether the decision is made by a panel of experts (as in book awards), a larger vote of people in the business (the Academy Awards), or the general public (American Idol).

Surely in contests like these there cannot be very much difference between the winner and the entry that finished second. Or third or fourth for that matter. Yet the winner, no matter how narrow the margin, reaps large rewards at the box office or in album sales, while the runners-up are all but forgotten. Once the winner is decided, we all get in line.

There seems to be a contradiction between the American ideal of freedom and individualism on the one hand and the uniformity of our choices on the other. But that’s nothing new. As observers of American culture going back to deTocqueville have noted, Americans insist on their right to individual freedom, but they use that freedom to choose pretty much what everyone else is choosing. And they insist that others do likewise.