Friday, 29 August 2014

The Emmys show what it takes to make great TV drama go global

By Mark Poole, RMIT University
Image iStock

The American TV drama Fargo (2014-) was today awarded the gong for outstanding miniseries at the 2014 Emmy Awards and top-shelf TV productions are basking in the recognition, with a few shows – Fargo, True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, The Good Wife – dominating the nominations and awards. Do these wins herald a new era for top-quality television worldwide and, if so, what lessons can Australian TV producers learn?

Fargo is one of a number of US TV productions that seems to stand head and shoulders above its international competition – and they are being recognised at the Emmys. Aaron Paul won the Emmy for best supporting actor in Breaking Bad (2008-13). Julianna Marguilies' performance in The Good Wife (2009-) scored her the Emmy for best actress in a drama.

Based on the Coen brothers film of the same name, Fargo features big-name actors including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Alison Tolman – and tremendously high production values. Fans love it: user ratings on the website IMDB have awarded the series a score of 9.1 out of 10.


Fargo has great writers too. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Thornton signed on to the project “because it was so well written”. An Oscar winner, Thornton can pick and choose from feature film roles, but obviously relishes the creative freedoms that quality TV can bring. Fargo didn’t make the cut for nominees for the category of outstanding writing. That award was won by Moira Walley-Beckett for her work on Breaking Bad.

Like Thornton, the stars of True Detective (2014-), Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, are both acclaimed film actors (and both received Emmy nominations). It was previously impossible to tie down actors of this calibre for a ten-episode TV run. Something has changed.

Just as good as the cinema 


Chris Oliver-Taylor, managing director of Matchbox Pictures in Australia, was reported as saying at the Edinburgh International TV Festival over the weekend that television drama must now compete with cinema in depth and quality of the story.

He pointed to the number of Australian TV programs being remade in the US such as Please Like Me (2013-), The Slap (2011-), and Wilfred (2011) as evidence of that trend. Good stories get told again and again.

He added that Australian TV producers need to work internationally in order to secure finance. Quality TV needs international distribution – and stories need to resonate with international audiences.

In this regard there is still a chasm between the very top international drama – think True Detective, Fargo, The Good Wife in the US; The Returned from France; The Fall and Broadchurch from the UK; Borgen and The Killing from Scandinavia – and our quality TV such as Anzac Girls, currently screening on ABC TV. As Screen Hub editor David Tiley suggested, ANZACs is dividing critical audiences even as it rates well in Australia, with between 700,000 and a million viewers per week. The
challenge is selling stories like these to an international audience.


 The case of The Slap


Oliver-Taylor’s company Matchbox Pictures produced The Slap, possibly our greatest recent critical and commercial television production.

Indeed I heard him do the maths at a Melbourne forum where he explained how the series sold to the US, the UK and 56 other territories as well as Australia. He pointed out that quality TV financing has improved in Australia with the introduction of the Producer Offset, where producers can claim 20% of the budget of a TV series back from the government. That’s a smaller chunk than feature film producers receive – but still a significant piece of change.

The important thing about the production of The Slap, according to Oliver-Taylor, was that it went into profit. This is not always the case. Corners weren’t cut: The Slap was a piece of quality television that producers, directors, writers, cast and crew could all be proud of. And hopefully more success stories will emerge.

Matchbox has some quality drama coming up such as Devil’s Playground (2014) and Deadline Gallipoli (2015). The ABC has high hopes for The Secret River (2014), co-written by Jan Sardi and Mac Gudgeon from Kate Grenville’s book of the same name. Still, it is a challenge for any Australian production to resonate with both local and international audiences.

But significantly, when the Danish drama Borgen (2010-) was first made, the DR network thought that only Norway and Sweden would buy a show about Danish coalition politics, and only then out of solidarity, according to the show’s creator Adam Price. It has been sold to 75 countries around the world. It has never been remade in the US, unlike other Scandinavian shows like The Bridge (2011-) (remade in the US and as The Tunnel in the UK), and The Killing (2007-12).

The Slap is being remade in the US for NBC, which owns Matchbox Pictures, and Tony Ayres is slated as one of the executive producers. Other US remakes include Rake (2010) from Essential Media and Hoodlum’s Secrets and Lies (2003-).

Who knows – perhaps in years to come we’ll see some stories that originated in Australia up for Emmy awards.

The Conversation
Mark Poole does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

In Conversation with The New Yorker TV critic: Emily Nussbaum

By Lisa French, RMIT University


Image via iStock
Over the past decade we have witnessed the rise and rise of long form television – from The Sopranos to The Wire, Game of Thrones to Orange Is the New Black – and no one has been watching this transformation more keenly than the television critic for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum.

Here, media researcher Lisa French talks with Nussbaum about bingeing on DVD sets, live-tweeting and delighting in reruns of Sex and The City.



Nussbaum is appearing at the 2014 Melbourne Writers' Festival on Friday August 22 for Seminar: Writing About TV and Castaway with Emily Nussbaum, Talking Points: How TV Got Great on Saturday August 23 and then at the Sydney Opera House Festival of Dangerous Ideas for Television Has Replaced the Novel on Sunday August 31.

Full transcript:

Lisa French (LF): My name is Lisa French and welcome to The Conversation podcast. I am speaking with Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, who is in Australia this month for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Emily, welcome. Let me start by asking how you became a television critic?

Emily Nussbaum (EM): Well, honestly the reason I got into television in the first place, I always chalk up straightforwardly to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because around 1999 I was watching Buffy, and this was a time that TV was exploding a bit. The Sopranos was out and Sex and The City and a lot of other shows, and I’ve always been interested in TV, but Buffy was the first show where I was just transformed by becoming a super-fan in a slightly insane way.

One of the things that was going on was a lot of people were talking about The Sopranos, and I loved The Sopranos, but I also loved Buffy. I would go to parties and I would want to talk to people about Buffy and what a brilliant show it was, how operatic it was, how it had this fantastic mixture of genres and these incredible performances – and it was a very easily put-down show.

It was a show about a teenage girl who was a vampire slayer, it was on this tiny cable network that nobody had really heard of (that was for teenagers) and honestly it kind of lit this flame in me and put a chip on my shoulder. I’m an argumentative person and it made me interested in the larger debate about what TV was capable of. Also, it just felt like an exciting period.

So, I feel very lucky to be writing about TV during a time of great transformation. That was also a period when people were starting to talk about TV online, and the other origins of me ending up writing about TV were honestly things like television without pity, and anonymous websites where people would passionately discuss television.

I read a lot of critics, but my inspirations as far as a critic [goes] were often online digital conversation about TV, which I found wildly stimulating and also global; in a way to talk with an audience of television viewers that otherwise I wouldn’t have had access to.

Since TV was always considered a very isolated experience, I think it really changed the way that people thought about it. You could actually treat it as a text, and it was as though the world was a graduate school in which everyone was just constantly persevering about particular shows that they loved or hated.

As for becoming a television writer, that’s a different situation. I feel like I have a dream job. I’m very, very lucky to be writing for The New Yorker, which is a place where I can write seriously about television and I can write at a pace where I can write longer essays.

It’s thrilling and I feel like I’m constantly trying to push myself forward with this. As anyone knows journalism is collapsing [laughs] and it’s very difficult to write arts criticism, so I never know what advice to give people who want to write about TV.

I have to hope that there will be models for doing it, but there’s no way that I could give any kind of meaningful advice given that I feel like I came of age during a period of transformation not only for TV but for journalism. And, a lot of people I know are writing at very fast paces online and writing recaps and things like that.

I think that can be very brutal, I mean, ideally I hope we’re working toward a stage where people actually will get compensated for writing thoughtfully about TV, and essentially every year I’m just hoping that the bottom doesn’t drop out on the possibility of doing that.

LF: You just touched on something that I wanted to ask you about, which is: how technology has changed your work, how it’s changed whether a television critic might have a social media strategy, how to keep up with your field and [if] technology has changed everything that you do?

EN: Well, for one thing, I feel like the changes in technology are indistinguishable from the changes in TV itself. You wouldn’t have a show like The Wire unless you had two things that supported it. One of them is DVDs and DVRs that enabled people to pause, rewind, save, revisit and basically treat television shows as texts that they could analyse. And, the other thing is the internet, which allows people to decode more dense kinds of art.

Previously, television was just something that poured into people’s living rooms. They saw it once and then they just had to react to it as it happened – they couldn’t treat it the way that you would a song, a movie, a book or a variety of other art forms. I think that changed it a lot.

But, as for my own experience with it, as I said I was a very online kind of television viewer and I still am, and you know every year the whole thing changes in terms of how people talk about TV.

Twitter was invented a few years ago and I’m very active on Twitter, and for me, everybody uses these things different ways. I don’t think of it as a strategy, I think of it more as writing is isolating, and there’s something wonderful about the social world of being able to trade ideas back and forth with other people.

With TV specifically, I feel like it’s such an audience-driven art form, not to say that the shows don’t exist separate from the audience, but unlike a lot of other art forms, and this is sort of [an] ongoing thing with me is the question of: how do you distinguish the critical conversation about television from these anxious historical comparisons where they say “it’s become as good as movies! It’s as good as books!”
To me, I feel like people need to drop those comparisons and celebrate TV on its own terms. One of the things that happens with TV is it takes place over time, episodically, and in a kind of loop with the audience, and because of the way TV is made, often it reacts to the audience’s reactions to it.

So, this is a long way of saying I feel like for me, when I’m talking about a television show, I’m often writing about it part way through the series. It hasn’t necessarily ended, and being able to hear other people’s responses to the show is very valuable to me – because it does make me feel like I’m part of a live audience reacting to things, and being able to talk to people globally who have different reactions. It often makes me question my own responses and think about different perspectives on TV.

For me it’s great, but on the other hand, everybody has a different personality about this kind of thing, and I know a lot of people find online TV conversation overwhelming and it kind of drowns out their own responses. So, I think you can see it [in] all sorts of different ways.

LF: One of the things I’ve noticed is, the television’s gained this whole new life that seems to be connected to, so I’m thinking True Detective, you know the kind of actors that are going and the kind of directors. Do you have any view on what might be causing that?

EN: For one thing, I’m not going to make major judgements on what’s going on in Hollywood, but universally, people seem to find that it is more difficult to make idiosyncratic, independent films in Hollywood. I mean there’s opportunity that’s clearly available, especially on cable television, that there isn’t necessarily in Hollywood as far as funding something [goes]. So, there’s been this inflow that’s very exciting to me and challenging to me also, especially movie directors.

As far as the big name stars that are going on TV [go], I think that’s been happening for a while, because it used to be an area where it was a condescended kind of acting and that had to do with the kinds of shows that were on television. It was something that potentially could destroy somebody’s career because they had stepped down and they had gone from, you know, Hollywood and movies to TV. I just think that distinction doesn’t hold anymore.

But, as exciting as it is to me to see big name directors and big name actors go to television shows, to me it’s important to distinguish between the excitement of status names and the excitement of great, breakthrough and actually original work.

I’m not a huge fan of True Detective, I wrote a critical piece about it – I mean, I think it was a visually exciting and chaotic show, and it does stick with you, but I thought the praise for it was overblown. And, I think part of the reason it happened was because it fit in to all of these categories that people just tend to throw praise at, which are the kind of antihero dramas, big name actors and things like that.
However, I do think that when Jane Campion made Top of The Lake that was a lot more exciting to me. Because, I felt like what she was doing with the format of the experimental procedural by making [it] into something far more visually ambitious, strange, quiet, eerie and poetic than a lot of TV murder mysteries are – to me that was a much more exciting thing that was happening.

So, essentially, I’m just cautious about having a hierarchy in which things that come from Hollywood are better than things that are native to TV. And, similarly, you know this goes with sort of a larger feeling that I have where I really get excited when the conversation expands so that its not all about dark and gritty dramas, but it’s about sitcoms, it’s about all different kinds of TV and how TV is changing. I mean in a lot of ways I’m more interested in comedy than drama. But, it’s harder to talk about why a comedy is great.

LF: If you think about Top of The Lake and Buffy, one of the things I’m wondering about is there seems to be, certainly in Australia, a lot more shows about women with women-centred characters, way more than there actually [are] I think in Hollywood, and what we’ve noticed in Australia is there are a lot more women creators and they’re creating a lot more interesting roles for women. Do you think there’s more going on in relation to good roles for women?

EN: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly exciting and it’s not just exciting for, you know, identity politics numbers reasons. It’s exciting because I feel like on TV especially, first of all, there’s such a wide range of creators and good roles that I feel like we’ve finally moved past the point where people are excited about one of them, and then that show or that person has to represent all women. That to me is a terrible situation, where you have one person that are like “look, it’s so-and-so, they’re representing how women can be funny!” I mean it’s just ridiculous because there’s a million different stories to tell.
But, I have to say, the last couple of years have been really explosive in terms of great female characters and great female creators, and in terms of female comedy especially – there’s a wide range of interesting voices on TV.

I think the main thing that’s been really exciting, and this is true for men as well, has been [that] historically there was this problem where all television characters had to be likeable. You had to invite them into your living room every week and, because TV was a mass medium that was very driven by advertising on network television, there was a demand that characters not have off-putting qualities.
That’s changed a lot for both men and women, and for men a little bit earlier, because the change with the great antihero characters like Tony Soprano really broke open that rule. And so, suddenly, you could have characters who acted badly, or made the audience uncomfortable. I feel like there was a second wave of characters that did that for women, and the main thing about it is that it’s completely expanded the rhetoric of what an exciting central female character can be.

Not every character has to be inspiring and somebody who represents women and somebody everyone can identify with. A lot of the shows that did that earlier were really terrific, like Mary Tyler Moore, but it’s a neutralising kind of thing for a woman to always have to be basically a credit to her gender on television.

And also, the other thing that’s exciting to me are shows that have ensembles of women where it’s not just one or two women on the show, but you have a whole range, and you get shows like: Orange is the New Black, Call the Midwife and, I was going to say Orphan Black, but that’s actually one woman, eight times [laughs] so it’s slightly different.

Again, I just think it’s a great moment, because you don’t get that Smurfette problem where you have one woman in a larger ensemble and she’s like “the girl” character. That is a problem in big, mass Hollywood movies and it doesn’t seem to me to be a problem on TV at all. That’s not to say I love every show, but there’s so many different shows on TV that sometimes it’s hard to point out larger trends.

But, I do think there is an exciting improvement in terms of having characters who range from Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife to Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened that are just indelible, memorable, complex characters and great performances.

LF: I wanted to ask you about bingeing, I know you’re going to talk a bit about it and you just mentioned the idea of television coming into your room, you know, into your house once a week or whatever, and I read one of your columns where you talk about trying to resist the urge to binge The Returned, which I wasn’t able to resist that urge and had to binge the whole lot and I’ve actually found that my entire relationship to television has changed since I became a binger and I just – it’s like I come rushing home and I have to get my fix.

So, I wonder what you think about that kind of phenomena that you know you can buy the whole series, or you know, like you don’t actually have to resist, like is it changing how you know because instead of thinking about it all week you actually have to you get onto the next you don’t know how you can stop it not where the cliffhanger is you can just go in for as much time as you have and so I wonder whether that changes the sort of passionate engagement in how you might like something and then you might after a while change your mind?

EN: Yeah I think that it’s true, it’s a particularly wonderful thing for shows like, I was talking about Orange is the New Black and a friend of mine pointed out to me that she thought that if Orange is the New Black was something that people watched episodically it might not have caught on the way that it did because it was different enough in terms of its environment and its tone that it’s the kind of thing that if it was weekly people might’ve watched two episodes and been like “yeah, you know I’m not sure it’s for me” whereas when you were able to watch the whole thing in my review I said something about scarfing down the episodes like they were Thin Mints, like they were girl scout cookies, where you just eat the whole thing.

There really is a delicious quality to certain shows and especially, you know, melodrama plots or things that are just very immersive, it’s thrilling to be able to watch them at once. I have mixed feeling about it because, you know, it does take away from the historical thing of people watching shows over long periods of time when everybody’s watching a show at a different point it’s actually hard to critically respond to it.

It’s been a tricky thing for me to figure out, you know, should I talk about the whole season of a show? Should I talk about three quarters of the way through? I got onto Breaking Bad really late in the game, so I actually watched the first three seasons of that show all in one week by myself, which was a wonderful week, it was really great to be able to watch the show that way. And, you know, it was odd because I felt like I was suddenly watching it in a very different way than many people that I knew had watched it, like they’d watched it over years debating the characters, and I was watching it very independently in this kind of giddy wave-state of just ignoring everybody and watching all day long.
It’s interesting to me that there are these new things like Netflix and Amazon, where whole seasons are being produced all at once. I mean, I think it depends on the show whether that’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing. It definitely frees the television creator from having to shift gears halfway through when they realise that the audience is reacting to something. That’s good probably in some cases and not in others. But, it does make me excited that there’s a show, Jill Soloway’s show, Transparent is going to be coming out in September. I really realised with this jolt that the entire season was coming out at once and so I was just looking forward to it in a very different way than realising the show was going to debut in late September because I sort of realised I’m just assigning a day to watch the whole thing.

LF: In Australia, we don’t get things when you get them and we have to wait a long time. So, often we, like when I watch Breaking Bad I can buy the whole lot in the shop and then I could go and get the next series so I could binge them, and that’s one of the reasons why Australians are actually the greatest pirates in the world because they can’t get what they want, when they want, and they can’t get their fix. And so, that’s something that’s playing out in the media right now.

I wonder whether this changes the kind of fan bases for television? You know, when I went to see the movie of Sex and The City I was a big fan of the show, mainly for the frocks actually and the first part, and I love New York, so I couldn’t get over the hundreds of women all drinking Cosmopolitans and, you know, there’d be a single shot of a shoe stepping out of the car – you know, the Manolo Blahnik shot – and the whole audience would go [gasps] like this, and you know that thing of you watch it then you kind of go into work and then you might or to school or wherever and you might talk to someone about it you know, you might go to your old book club and you might all be talking about it. So, do you think the kind of nature of fandom has changed because of this technology and online and in different ways?

EN: In some ways yes and in some ways no. I mean, one of the nice things that I think about online conversation is that they happen both immediately and over time so I if you’re in a discussion thread about a show you can write something and then somebody can come back a week later and write a response to you and you end up having ongoing conversations so its not a live audience all watching it at once, but the conversation itself still can be very, you know, immersive, I mean, people have been talking about this with the Netflix shows because the question becomes: “When can I start talking about it and spoiling things, like has everyone caught up?”

On the other hand, there are still some shows in the states that people do still watch live together, one of them is Scandal, which everybody tweets about simultaneously and I have really mixed feelings about live tweeting television shows, I mean TV is not only a dialogue experience, it’s a visual experience, and there’s part of me that feels like it’s disrespectful to be constantly looking down at your phone or tweeting and talking to people during the thing.

On the other hand, a show like Scandal really just begs for that response. It’s a very high octane crazy melodrama and a lot of the fun is responding simultaneously with people as it goes on so, you know, it’s a developing etiquette as far as these things go but my main thing is I just think there are so many ways of being an audience for TV solo or joined together or watching live and in a group together that there’s a level where I don’t think that the intense fanhood has gone away.

I can’t judge exactly how the viewing operates in Australia because I understand from what people are saying that there’s a lot of online pirating but I assume that people still watch it together sometimes for shows like Game of Thrones that have big fanhoods. I’m excited though that there’s more of an opportunity for shows that have small audiences because I think some of the most interesting and striking things happen on shows that will never be like huge fan-engaged, crazy sensations that are the must talk about things. A show like Enlightened, which was a small show and got cancelled after two seasons, but was, to me, one of the best things that’s been on TV in a long time.

The great thing to me is that people can still come to it years later. The Wire also had a relatively small audience until a few seasons in and I’m just grateful that people can become enthusiasts years after the show was actually on the air by watching it on DVD, and then it just becomes part of the cultural knowledge of television.

What I worry about actually is great shows being lost just because they’re not available to people, and honestly, one of them is Sex and The City because the horrible truncated re-runs are shown at least here, there’s these ones that were shown on mainstream TV and so they cut out almost all of the graphic sex and language and it just changes the show into a much blander romantic comedy and I feel like most people don’t have access to the original episodes.

And I have this very frustrated feeling like the younger generation is not growing up with the full knowledge of Sex and the City, the kind of thing that only I am upset about, but I am upset enough for everybody else about this. I feel that there should be public funding for the entire episodes of Sex and the City to be shown so that everybody can discuss them with me 20 years later.

The Conversation
Lisa French does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Innovative Approaches to Justice: Magistrates' Court

by Sara Pheasant, Juris Doctor student, RMIT, 2014

Sara Pheasant shadowed Magistrate Ann Collins
Prior to my week of shadowing Magistrate Ann Collins, I was intrigued by models of therapeutic jurisprudence, but my understanding was largely theoretical. I applied for the shadowing opportunity as I was very interested in the reality of its application. Gaining an understanding of how it is currently being applied was invaluable. Indeed, I was not aware of the extent of the use of the therapeutic approach in the specialist jurisdictions of the Magistrates’ Court, and the potential for a more widespread application of some aspects.

The shadowing began with the frenetic pace of a day in the criminal jurisdiction of the Magistracy, with back-to-back summary mention hearings. This was a particularly useful way to contextualise and contrast the approach used in the specialist courts. It was also interesting to note the use of elements of the approach in this context, such as the clarity of communication to the accused. I was then privileged to shadow Ms Collins sitting in both the Koori Court in Broadmeadows and the Assessment and Referral Court (ARC).

I was struck by the whole experience of the roundtable environment of these specialist courts. I understood the idea of court-supported rehabilitation through a holistic approach to case management; however, I did not expect such a tangible sense of accessibility engendered by environmental choices, such as the Magistrate sitting at the table. The placement of an accused opposite the Magistrate created a directness of communication that noticeably shifted the focus to the accused and away from legal counsel. Further, it was remarkable to observe the sense of collective participation created by support workers sitting at the table and family invited to contribute to the process.

I also expected a sense of informality, but while there was certainly notably more of a relaxed air in the room, there was a formal air with a greater sense of focus, calmness and humanity. For example, it was delightful to see one accused's young child move quietly around the court and, when his dad's matter was called, seat himself comfortably at the table with caseworkers, legal representatives and the Magistrate. He sat colouring-in at the table during proceedings. Similarly, it was interesting to observe how different it felt to have a clerk announce to remain seated when the Magistrate entered. Also, to have the Police Prosecutor introduce himself using his first name, and to chat with an accused about the soccer. In ARC I could see that these small details made a huge difference towards the reassuring nature of the environment, and how effective this was for individuals already managing a range of difficult personal circumstances.

It was the 'humanity' of the proceedings that was the most striking difference of the therapeutic- model courts. Ms Collins spoke clearly and directly to the accused, ensuring each person understood the relevant legal process. She listened attentively, and, while expeditiously addressing pressing matters, conveyed an understanding of the person's particular struggles, strengths and supports. The genuine interest in an accused's welfare was tangible from all staff; what was notable was that this was not a 'soft' approach, it was focused and informative process with an emphasis on genuine engagement. This was also evident in the handling of procedural issues; for example, using flexibility in the timing of hearings if it was known that attendance could be difficult. This was bolstered by an emphasis on autonomy and self-directed participation.

Proceedings in both ARC and the Koori Court were in stark contrast to the traditional in respect of the genuineness of the communication. This was reflected in the role of respected persons in the Koori Court, who conveyed mindfulness of the importance of significant relationships and connections to community in supporting change. Overall, of great importance to my professional interest in therapeutic jurisprudence is the understanding that its application is not theoretical; indeed, it is realistic, human, practical, and profound. It was invaluable to observe the application of law grounded in people's lives.

~ Sara Pheasant, Juris Doctor student, RMIT, 2014.


Friday, 8 August 2014

Are the arts & culture a public good?

By Jason Potts, RMIT University

Flinders Street Station at the 2014 White Night Festival in Melbourne. Image via iStock
Regular readers of this column will know that I’m neither an artist nor a cultural expert, but something much more déclassé: I’m a cultural economist.

Part of this involves studying the incentives that operate in the making of art and culture, and its consumption, and thus extends to the institutions that shape and govern those incentives. But mostly this involves arguing the extent to which art and culture are a public good.

I want to elucidate this much misunderstood concept here “as an economist”. This matters because the basic rule of a modern economy in a modern political system, as certified by economists, is as follows: if something is a public good, then it should be provided by government (and financed by willing taxpayers).

These are the arguments that occupy cultural economists, both as friends of the arts, and as friends of taxpayers. There is a certain lose-lose dynamic here that makes being a cultural economist sometimes a thankless task. But to do this we do need to be clear about what a public good really is.

First, calling something a public good is not a moral claim, but a statement about economic efficiency. Public goods experience what is called “market failure”, which means that markets will create insufficient incentives to induce producers to supply the socially optimal level.

Second, a public good is not something that is public, and good. It doesn’t mean something we all like, or can in some majority sense agree is socially valuable.

The technical definition is a good that is both “non-rival” and “non-excludable”. Goods that are rivalrous (if I consume it, you can’t) and excludable (I can stop you from consuming it) are private goods: markets work well for them. Non-rivalrous and excludable are “club goods”. Whereas rivalrous and non-excludable goods are “common pool resources”. These require somewhat different governance mechanisms in order to be efficiently provided.

Pure public goods are actually quite rare: e.g. national defence. If you provide it for one, you provide it for all (non-rivalrous), and if produced I can’t stop you from consuming it (non-excludable). Another example is a mathematical algorithm. But many things that we commonly think of as public goods – such as health-care and education – actually aren’t. Hospital beds are rivalrous, and education places are excludable. That’s why private markets can work in these areas.

So is art and culture a public good? Here’s the thing. It’s tricky – you can argue it in good faith either way. On the one hand, a piece of music or sculpture or the aesthetic feeling of beautiful design is plainly a public good in the same way the formula for calculating the solution to a quadratic equation is. If I’m enjoying it, you can too, and moreover I can’t exclude you from the experience. But on the other hand, I can devise mechanisms to make it rivalrous or excludable – an obvious one being attaching intellectual property rights, or by limiting access by making it a commodity or a service. These are sometimes called business models.

For an economist, then, the economics of art and culture come down to the study of the efficacy of this translation between a public and a private good. The main point is that this rarely stays fixed. It is limited not only by artistic imagination, but by entrepreneurial imagination in ways of converting an idea into a revenue stream. This is affected by new technologies – the printing press, for example, and again with the Internet – and by new business models – William Shakespeare not only wrote plays, as high-school students know him for, but was the entrepreneur behind the commercial venture of the Globe Theatre, which MBA students might appreciate him for.

The fundamental question of the economics of arts & culture – is art and culture a public good? – has only circumstantial answers that for the most part turn not on the objective merits of the artistic and cultural output, but on the entrepreneurial imagination of the artist and their backers.

The first step in any engagement with the economics of arts and culture is to buttress their status as a public good. But that also does a disservice, because the ongoing viability – i.e. the sustainability – of an art form depends on its transformation into a private good.

The public good argument for government support of the arts has costs as well as benefits. Strong public support encourages, to be sure, but it also distorts incentives. The role of the cultural economist is to point out that any eventual total classification of arts and culture as a public good by arts and culture lobbyists risks being a Pyrrhic victory.

The Conversation
Jason Potts does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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