Ludwig von Mises and Trash TV
According to reports, Danielle Bregoli, the 14-year-old girl who became a popular internet meme this year due to a failed intervention on the Dr. Phil show, has signed a deal for her own reality television show. On a personal level, there is much to find offensive in Bregoli’s fame, in spite of her obvious marketing prowess. She is, after all, internet-famous simply for her improper English, toxic personal behavior, and apparent lack of respect for anyone around her. On an economic level, however, her rise is an interesting example of how capitalism rewards the interests of the masses, regardless of the opinion of the cultural elite.
Criticism of trashy pop culture is, of course, nothing new. Ludwig von Mises, for example, felt the need to defend commercial literature from socialist criticism. In The Anti-Capitalist Mentality he wrote:
What characterizes capitalism is not the bad taste of the crowds, but the fact that these crowds, made prosperous by capitalism, became “consumers” of literature — of course, of trashy literature. The book market is flooded by a downpour of trivial fiction for the semibarbarians. But this does not prevent great authors from creating imperishable works.
The term “semibarbarian” perhaps describes Ms. Bregoli’s TV persona as accurately as the excerpt describes the success of “trashy” reality TV. Capitalism has made access to television programming (and its internet equivalent) as large as it has ever been before. This constant competition for content has not only opened the doors to innovation — from the growth of cable and satellite networks, to the rise of Netflix and Amazon as content producers, to social media live streaming challenging traditional cable news — but it has also led to producers throwing money at content appealing to all sorts of demographics, apparently including those who’d want to watch the life of a troubled 14 year old.
Of course, it’s quite possible that the show’s producers have erred in their entrepreneurial judgment. TV shows fail all the time, with the industry known to jump at such bizarre concepts as a sitcom based on auto insurance commercial character, to one based on a lead character whose mother was reincarnated as a talking car. Even reality shows, whose popularity with producers is largely driven by a budget-friendly format, have had their own market failures — such as when Monica Lewinsky hosted a dating show, or The Baby Borrowers, a British series based on teenage couples looking after other people’s kids.
Just as in any other sector of the economy, capitalism incentivizes producers to create content for the masses, but doesn’t dictate that the masses have taste. As Mises put it:
Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.
In spite of the fact that Dr. Phil’s show is spawning cringeworthy spin offs, an argument can be made that the television trends of Americans actually demonstrate a growing appreciation for quality television. Last year seven of the top 10 most watched shows have won Emmy’s during their run. Meanwhile, AMC, the network credited for creating a “golden age of television” by creating a number of critically acclaimed television dramas, has been rewarded with commercial success — including three of the top cable television premiers last year. Even Downton Abbey, the PBS period piece about British aristocrats and their staff, has enjoyed ratings of 10 million views — roughly three times more than Here Comes Honey Boo Boo ever enjoyed.
Capitalism cannot give consumers taste, just as democracy cannot give voters wisdom. What capitalism does do, however, is give consumers choice — and creates the incentives necessary for producers to meet the desires of the people. Democracy simply offers the masses the ability to enforce the whims of the majority against the wishes of the minority. In America no one will be forced to watch a minute of a reality show about Danielle Bregoli, but should it find commercial success, its viewers will have the ability to shape American policy going forward.
If someone wants to defend the merits of democracy after coming to grips with that reality, perhaps it’s time for their own intervention on Dr. Phil.