Thursday, March 12, 2009

TV: American Idol

I usually couldn't care less about reality fare like "American Idol," but my Mom watches it, and being home for spring break means that I've had the chance to listen to the show in the background while Mom's in the other room. In the process, I've come to think that "American Idol" is actually a pretty good illustration of some economic concepts.

For instance, look at fixed and variable costs (cost, in the economic sense, is what it takes to produce something). "American Idol" has a big advantage, one that's shared by most reality shows - fewer variable costs. For someone to produce three different "CSI" programs, for instance, you need three casts of actors, three teams of writers, three crews. These costs rise in direct proportion to how much "CSI" you want to put on; they're all variable costs.

The production of "American Idol" is a bit different. Sure, Simon or Paula might demand some exorbitant sum for being a judge, but once you've paid that cost, you can pimp them out all you want. That's why Fox shows so much "American Idol" - the competition show, the results show, the various audition shows. You don't need to craft a different storyline to show William Hung hamming it up. I suppose whatever writers and production staff exist for "Idol" could demand compensation commensurate with the volume of content being put out, but I can't see them charging like regular TV writers do.

There are other lessons here besides economic ones. Unlike in most elections, people can vote more than once for a contestant on "Idol;" the limiting factor is the time spent voting for a particular singer, since the polls are only open for two hours after the show ends. You can also easily split your votes. During that time, I could put in, for instance, 80 votes for dark horse contestant B and 20 votes for favorite contestant A (who's probably going to make it anyway).

It's the world's largest cumulative voting system. This is, I believe, a potentially more accurate way of gauging support for a candidate, in any kind of election. Additionally, the more-obsessed "Idol" fans will be the ones with the most total votes; a single diehard "Noop Dog" fan can outweigh dozens of casual voters. That makes sense, because one of the end goals is for "Idol" winners to be successful in the recording industry - if you've spent a dozen hours on the phonelines voting for someone, you're fairly likely to drop $10 on the album when it hits Wally World.


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