Art Carden  

An Idea for Someone Looking for a Project

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I'm at the Southern Economic Association meeting this weekend. We'll be sharing food, fun, laughs, and our research. I'm looking for things to trim off my "Projects" list, so I'm going to start blogging ideas for papers I'll never take the time to write in the hope that somewhere there's an enterprising grad student looking for a paper. So here's an idea: labor market regulation, labor unions, and the explosion in reality television. My hypothesis is that the recent rise in reality TV is partially due to the fact that reality shows don't have to deal with unionized writers. I would be interested in seeing whether there's a strong relationship between unionization and the rise in reality TV. This was all well underway by the time of the Writers' Strike, but I wouldn't be surprised if we started to see a lot more reality TV after the strike.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

As attractive as I find the idea that something I don't particularly care for has caused something else I don't particularly care for, I'm skeptical of this idea. Reality TV seems to me to be a part of ongoing cultural changes and I personally wouldn't expect this factor to be all that important relative to that. But I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. I'd enjoy seeing a thorough analysis of the question, certainly.

Frank writes:

I think the increase in reality TV is more related to the fact that reality programming is more "must-see" than a standard sit-com or police drama shows. With Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and DVRs more people are time-shifting and binge-watching sit-com and police drama shows - and skipping the commercials. That leaves sports and reality TV (just another type of sporting event) as the only "must-see" - thus economically feasible - programming.

johnson85 writes:

I think the reality TV boom is simply driven by costs to produce. Compared to the cost of scripted sitcoms and dramas, reality tv is dirt cheap. The writers union and the strike obviously contribute to the costs and may have some small effect, but once it became clear that the tv audience was going to be fragmented anyway because of the proliferation of tv channels, and that relatively large percentages of the tv viewing population will watch crap, it was inevitable that lots of reality tv would pop up. My guess is non-unionized writers probably wouldn't reduce costs enough to cause a noticeable shift in the proportion of scripted v. 'reality' tv.

Randall M. writes:

This may explain some drift, but it's not just reality TV, it's all the contest-type shows (American Idol, etc.) as well. Not only do they not have to pay writers, but they hardly have to pay for the "talent" either.

ThomasH writes:

A positive finding would be devastating for people unsympathetic to unions. :)

Enial Cattesi writes:

The story is:
1. Huge strike from the writers.
2. Networks started to give chances to shows which weren't even considered before.
3. Viewers liked some of those shows so networks started to look at this market.

Many, sometimes all, of the new scripted shows are canceled during their first season. They are expensive. The story is that many of the reality shows are expensive also so chances are it has little to do with unions, but with change in viewers taste.

mike davis writes:

Two questions:

First, have unions become more or less important in the TV biz over time? I'd be a bit surprised to learn that unionization was increasing in that industry while it was decreasing in the private sector.

Second, why were you drawn to unions as your explanatory variable? The rise of reality TV is something worth understanding--at the very least it's an interesting story about change in one industry and it may also help us understand more basic changes in the culture. But as other commenters have noted, there could be lots of reasons. Unions could be part of the story but they're a familiar whipping boy. The brave grad students who pick up this topic need to be extra careful to understand their own biases.

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