There’s a part of the brain that really affects all of us. The boffins call it the nucleus accumbens – the pleasure centre of the brain.
The interesting thing about it is that it seems to operate according to the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. In economics this means that an additional unit of something yields a decreased usefulness in return.
It also means that when we experience pleasure, we get a thrill from it; the next dose of the same pleasure yields less of a thrill.
And so it goes on until it becomes boring and passé, so we either want more of it to get the same “high”, or we look for something else.
Take the current world economic crisis. It’s all put down to the greed of bankers. This is common with new money. We get it – it’s great, but the more we get, the more we want. That’s greed.
Remember what Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld testifi ed before Congress on the Lehman Brothers collapse? In eight years he had earned close to $250-million. Just like any junkie really – got to get more of it to get the same high as before.
So how is the greed of the world’s bankers connected to our industry? We’re in show business and our job is to sell pleasure.
That pleasure may be derived from something unpleasant, like a horror movie or a disturbing report on “Special Assignment”, but the pleasure is derived from a simulation of the pain or fear, without actually experiencing it. We’re safe in our armchairs.
Let’s go back in time: In the 1930s, the Hollywood musical became all the rage. But after 15 years, it died away. People had had enough of them; they’d had their high, and now they were looking for something else. So they latched onto the gritty stuff, and hence “Rebel Without a Cause” became the stuff of pleasure.
When that became passé, audiences moved to something else on offer. In fact, the changes in taste in film, radio and TV are just long-term fads, in the way that some fads are short term – like Pet Rocks, Hula Hoops and Rubik’s Cubes.
Cultural tastes change too because people don’t derive pleasure from them anymore. The psychedelic-mania of the ’60s drifted into the “good times, and bad taste” of the ’70s.
This in turn metamorphosed into the video decade of the ’80s, the digital decade of the ’90s and the reality-TV decade of the 2000s.
This decade is nearly over. It has been brought to its knees by the “credit crunch”. Two things now worry me: talk radio and reality TV. Are they getting past their sell-by date? Are they no longer stimulating the pleasure centre as much as they used to?
Callers are given less time; more of them are jammed into one programme. This reflects the host’s need to get a wide range of views. It’s drifting away from the truly meaningful niche. A new focus is needed.
As for reality TV, coming up with new versions of an old formula inevitably means moving to the mediocre. The industry is so risk averse that it avoids trying something new until the person who took the risk shows that it works.
Then we all get into copy-cat mode and flog the horse until its dead, and then keep flogging until someone else arrives on the scene with a filly.
My guess is that the predicted “two-year recession” is going to be a threeyear depression. Lots of media will go to the wall. The explosion in radio and TV will slow down. Music will slow down in pace and rhythm (as it has done before during depressions). People will revert to the thrill of real communication with real people in real time.
We see the signs right now: realtime SMS messages, subtitling talk shows, social networking on the web and phones, and the rise in live entertainment. The train is pulling into the station.
Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years. His experience with television dates back to the beginning in South Africa. He is a media business consultant, trainer and specialist in audience psychology.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (January 2009).