The all-singing, all-dancing thesis

The Entertainment Economy
February 11, 2000

Entertainment, Michael Wolf tells us again and again in his new book, is now huge business. On page four it accounts for 5.4 per cent of US household expenditure and by page 31 it has surged (with no explanation) to 8.4 per cent of US consumers' expenditure. Might this be a typesetting error? Who can tell? Wolf throws intriguing statistics around like baseballs, but provides no references and no sources.

In any event, it would be hard to argue with either statistic because Wolf nowhere states exactly what he means by entertainment. Definitions, it is true, can be boring. Nonetheless, to write a book called The Entertainment Economy without making a cursory attempt to define "entertainment" must surely be viewed, at the very least, as wrong-headed.

The closest he comes to a definition is: "Within its home turf - movies, television, videos, popular music, spectator sports, theme parks, radio, casinos, newspapers, books, children's (and grown-ups') toys, and so on - entertainment is in many parts of the world the fastest growing sector of the economy."

The statement immediately reveals the definitional problems involved. First, there is the sloppy "and so on". Second, and more fundamentally, are television, radio, books, newspapers and other media simply "entertainment"? Parts of each of them are, certainly; other parts manifestly are not.

Similarly, casino gambling is not usually classified as entertainment. If it is entertainment, how about horse and dog gambling? Football pools? Lottery Instants? Are all children's toys entertainment? An awful lot seem to me educational. Wolf cavalierly corrals all media and many other disparate activities into the entertainment enclosure without qualification or caveat.

This need for precision is not mere pedantry. In focusing on the growth of entertainment, Wolf has rightly identified an issue of massive importance. But he has skimmed over it like a pebble bouncing across a deep pond. The waves and ripples caused by the phenomena he spotlights are far more complex than he seems to grasp, and demand much more profound analysis.

Human beings' predilection for entertainment is not new. It has existed at almost all times and in almost all societies. The Romans were into entertainment in a big way: the Coliseum, one of a galaxy of amphitheatres, was hugely expensive and it was not built in a day. Most "primitive", non-westernised peoples dance, paint and play music.

The deepest that Wolf gets in his assessment of the nature of entertainment is the glib assertion that it "helps us escape the daily grind", and that "modern life creates emotional needs that the marketplace can help us assuage through entertainment or entertainment-enhanced products". But is it modern life, or is it endemic in the nature of humanity? And more fundamentally, might we - like the Romans - drift towards a taste for full-time entertainment at the expense of the more material aspects of affluence?

Western economies are doubling in size every 25 years or so. At that rate, during the next century our nation's material wealth will increase 16-fold. Such lavish affluence is impossible - for me at least - to envisage. And it raises acutely what we might call the Roman question: will people prefer to lie abed, watching entertainments of one kind and another, while indolently eating, drinking and screwing themselves silly?

Or will they prefer to take up more demanding activities - sports, the arts in all their many manifestations, engaging in strenuous physical exertions or mind- stretching games? Are playing tennis, or painting, or mountain climbing, gardening or chess just entertainment? Not in my book - at least not without stretching the meaning of language. The essence of entertainment is that someone else entertains you. But many booming leisure activities demand arduous, albeit rewarding, personal effort.

At the moment it seems difficult to predict which route humanity is likely to espouse with more zeal. Wolf takes it for granted, we will go for entertainment, though beyond maundering on about the internet - an all-too-obvious and well-trodden path - he attempts no visionary analysis of where the entertainment industry is going. How can he, when he does not define it with clarity, or question its social and psychological functions in any depth.

Sadly, Wolf has not written a book that reveals much about "the entertainment economy" at all. He has made no attempt to investigate the economic consequences of the entertainment boom he bangs on about; the mechanics of supply and demand are not explored - while he is at pains to prove that demand is burgeoning, he hardly mentions the supply implications. He has made no proper attempt to forecast future growth levels, nor to specify the forces that will influence them.

Instead, at its occasional best, Wolf has written a book about the movers and shakers of the entertainment business. Being uncharitable, one might say that The Entertainment Economy is one of those many business books primarily written to help the author win more business - and as Wolf is a consultant to the entertainment industry, the flattering of big clients is intended to help him achieve that perfectly respectable commercial objective.

But I think it goes deeper than that. I think Wolf, like so many others, has fallen head-over-heels in love with the entertainment business - with its whirl and whizz, its glamour and glitz, its money and its influence (not to say power). In consequence he is bedazzled by the moguls who run it. The index is a giveaway. Apart from innumerable references to the internet in its various forms, the longest and most numerous entries are on Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Bill Gates, Sumner Redstone, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner, Lew Wasserman and the rest. The entire gallimaufry of right-on media moguls is repeatedly name dropped (including "Sir" Robert Maxwell, a conferment that would doubtless have delighted the bouncing Czech, though he would surely have felt he deserved a peerage).

"All that glisters is not gold" says the aphorism based on Thomas Gray's poem. But Wolf has been seduced by the glister, good and proper. Ah well, that's entertainment.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Advertising Standards Board of Finance, and chairman, Royal Institution.

The Entertainment Economy

Author - Michael J Wolf
ISBN - 0140281754
Publisher - Pengiun
Price - £18.99
Pages - 214

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