The random long tail and the golden age of television

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Digitization has reduced the costs of production, distribution, and promotion in music, movies, and books, with major consequences for both the number of new products made available as well as the realized quality of the best new products.1 Cost reductions, along with relaxed gatekeeping constraints, make possible the creation of additional content. Then because of the inherent unpredictability of new product appeal (Goldman 1989; Caves 2000), some of the new products turn out to be surprisingly good. Given unpredictability, growth in the number of new products made available gives rise to growth in the number of products beyond a high-quality threshold. The strongest evidence for this mechanism is the growing share of “ex ante losers”–products from independent producers, many of which would not have come to market before digitization–among “ex post winners,” the best-selling products that consumers find most appealing. The evidence for this mechanism is strong in music, books, and movies. What about television? This question is of interest both as another context for exploring this mechanism, as well as because of the traditional regulatory interest in promoting high-quality and diverse programming. This paper uses new data from a variety of sources to explore the evolution of television quality in the digital era. The idea that we are currently experiencing a “golden age of television” is not new; journalists and critics have made this observation.2 The additional contribution of this paper, beyond noting the golden age, is to link the observation that we are experiencing a plethora of high-quality new products to an economic mechanism related to digitization and the inherent nature of cultural products. The paper proceeds in three sections. Section I briefly outlines the theoretical mechanism by which cost reduction, along with unpredictability, could give rise to increases in the number of high-quality products. Section I also describes relevant features of the television landscape, the reduction in production costs, along with growth in the number of distribution channels as well as the policy context of regulatory interest in variety, quality, and innovation in television programming. Section II describes the disparate data sources we use to document the evolution of the number of new shows over time, as well as the appeal of these shows to consumers and critics. Section III then presents results. We document (a) growth in the number of new shows, (b) growth in the “quality” of shows, and (c) that a growing share of the shows that consumers and critics find most appealing are the shows of new lineage, many of which would not have been produced without the changes brought about by digitization. Section IV concludes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
JournalInnovation Policy and the Economy
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2017

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© 2017 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. All rights reserved.


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