Averages Are Meaningless in an Expanding Market

by on April 22, 2008 · 7 comments

I want to second Adam’s great post on the silly alarmism over the state of the media. I never watch network TV, so I don’t have an opinion on whether it’s become a cultural wasteland, but to the extent that that’s true, it’s primarily because there are so many alternative entertainment sources (basic and premium cable, DVDs, the Internet, indy movie theaters) competing for more discerning viewers. There’s a lot more of everything—great entertainment and drivel alike—being produced. And anyone who cares is free to seek out great shows like The Wire rather than watching the latest formulaic crap on NBC.

This, indeed, mirrors the broader critique that’s commonly leveled at the Internet (ironically, it’s often made by defenders of traditional mass media) that most of what’s on the Internet—be it blogs, YouTube videos, amateur poetry, or whatever—is crap. This is true. But it’s also totally irrelevant, because nobody spends their time consuming the median content online. Rather, they have a variety of increasingly sophisticated filters at their exposure that allow them to find the best stuff and ignore the rest. What we ought to care about isn’t the quality of the average content that’s available, but the quality of the average content that’s actually consumed, as judged by the person consuming it. It’s almost a tautology that more options means people will be able to find more stuff they’ll like.

By the same token, there’s no reason to care especially about the quality of the average network TV show when people are abandoning network TV in droves in favor of higher-quality content available elsewhere. What matters is whether there’s enough high-quality stuff for people to watch, and on that score things have never been better.

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