Dispatches > The Buzz

Chain reaction

CULTURE BEAT | Free-market forces, led by retailers like Wal-Mart, may be reining in the excesses of American culture

Issue: "Tyranny of the minority," June 7, 2003

Television studios cater to advertisers more than to viewers, so the most critical time for the industry is the "upfront" season, when networks pitch new programs to companies buying commercials. During this time, several weeks in May, networks sold up to three-quarters of all of their ad time for the coming year.

This lag between the buying of airtime and the actual airing of shows explains why bombs that hardly anyone watches nevertheless have their commercial slots filled. But when companies in the upfront season refuse to buy ads on certain shows, the studios have to adjust their programming accordingly. This year, advertisers drew the line at the worst of the reality shows.

Although higher-concept reality shows-such as American Idol, Joe Millionaire, and Survivor-were big hits and will be coming back, the sleazier variety-such as Are You Hot? and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!-have proven to be major embarrassments for the companies that advertise on them. Companies that want to project an aura of quality no longer want their products associated with the likes of Fear Factor.

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This is an example of the economic marketplace correcting bad culture. Libertarians have long argued that the principles of free-market capitalism apply to more than just economics. Just as competition between products sends prices down and quality up and just as the law of supply and demand creates a self-regulating marketplace, ideas too must compete with each other, with the best eventually winning out.

Economic problems come when the government or unscrupulous businesses interfere with this "invisible hand." In the same way, libertarians believe that attempts to squelch or silence unpopular ideas-whether by the government or a self-protecting intellectual establishment-constitute an interference in the "free marketplace of ideas," artificially preventing the best ideas from rising to the top.

There is a great deal of truth to this analysis, and economic freedom is indeed fundamental to every other kind of freedom our nation enjoys. But do principles of laissez-faire capitalism apply in the same way to cultural and moral problems?

Cultural conservatives worry that, human nature being what it is, catering to the public's baser desires will be enormously successful, while undermining the moral structures that every society needs.

Giving the public what it wants-such as sex, violence, and sensationalism-has indeed resulted in an increasingly superficial and money-driven pop culture, one that weakens what successful cultures absolutely must have-namely, strong families, law and order, and intellectual richness.

And yet, there are some signs that free-market forces are, at least slightly, tempering the Vanity Fair of the entertainment industry.

A powerful force for cultural conservatism is now Wal-Mart and other big discount chains such as Kmart and Costco. In addition to hardware, T-shirts, and chia pets, these retail behemoths now sell books, CDs, and videos. Wal-Mart will not sell any product that is likely to offend its customers-no books with racy covers promising explicit sex scenes; no sexually explicit movies; no CDs with a parental warning label.

Instead, Wal-Mart stocks products that appeal to average Americans. Veggie Tales have been a huge hit for Wal-Mart. So has the Left Behind series. Many publishing experts credit the big retailers for making bestsellers of conservative writers, such as Ann Coulter.

Wal-Mart made its billions by targeting the small towns and suburbs where most Americans live, as opposed to the big cities that were the traditional focus of commerce. In the same way, the culture-producers now have to take into account the values of the people who live in the "red states." The big chains "have obviously reached the Bush-red audience in a big way," Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of AOL Time Warner's book division, told The New York Times. "It has been a seismic shift in the business, and to some of us in publishing it has been a revelation."

That not everyone lives in a liberal, urban, coastal "blue state" should not be so surprising, but having to contend with Wal-Mart means that musicians are putting out toned-down, profanity-free versions of their albums. Some video makers are issuing specially edited versions to meet Wal-Mart's standards. And, on the positive side, there is now a strong market for family-friendly fare.

Of course, Wal-Mart's clout in the marketplace depends on the fact that its customers already have strong cultural values. Capitalism itself depends on a moral infrastructure in which individuals respect each other's property. The cultural marketplace too depends on the moral infrastructure built by homes and churches. If that infrastructure is in place, the supply will respond to the demand and the "invisible hand" will build up the culture.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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