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By virtually any measure, cultural activity has been enjoying an expansion that stacks up to Wall Street’s long-running bull market. Far more books and records are being sold these days (see chart 1 and table 1). In 1985, according the National Endowment for the Arts, 3 percent of adults reported seeing an opera within the previous year, 22 percent reported going to an art museum, and 56 percent reported reading literature. In 1997, those figures had risen to 5 percent for operas, 35 percent for art museums, and 63 percent for literature. Nineteen ninety-seven also saw record levels reported on the activity side, with 16 percent of adults drawing, 17 percent taking art photos, 35 percent buying art work, and 12 percent doing creative writing.
Interestingly, the culture boom has, for the most part, seen older art forms supplemented and preserved, rather than paved over, as might happen in a building boom. Hence, even as classical music sales as a percentage of all prerecorded music sales have been sloping downward in the 1990s (2.8 percent in 1997, down from 3.1 percent in 1990), it has nonetheless remained easy to find an ever-wider variety of classical music recordings. It’s also become easier to see an orchestra perform: The total number of concerts increased by about 50 percent between 1990 and 1996, to a total of roughly 29,000 (combined private and public funding for orchestras is also way up in recent years).
To get a firmer grip on the magnitude of change that has been occurring, consider in greater detail two representative areas: TV-related culture and publishing. By 1970, television had saturated U.S. households: 95 percent had at least one set, compared to 98 percent in 1997. The past 30 years, however, have seen a number of developments that have greatly increased the amount and variety of TV-related culture available. The average home now has 2.3 sets, compared to 1.4 sets in 1970. Beyond growth in the number of individual stations, there are now four full-fledged networks and two “mini-networks” (WB and UPN).
Cable, the growth of which was long hampered by the Federal Communications Commission’s restrictive, broadcast network–influenced definition of the “public interest,” is now in 65.3 percent of all households with TVs (compared to 6.7 percent in 1970). The average subscriber receives 30 to 60 channels, typically including several devoted not merely to shopping but to new and old feature films, reruns of old shows, documentaries, and other sorts of specialized programming (a predictable response to increased competition in any area is, after all, product differentiation and specialization).
Television remains a favorite punching bag of moral crusaders and cultural critics, who tend to view an increase in channels or programs simply as proof of the multiplicative identity of zero: Any number times zero is still zero. But most informed analysts who actually watch TV would almost certainly agree with David Bianculli’s assessment in Teleliteracy (1991) that “TV is better now than it was in the ‘Golden Age’ of TV, and the best of television compares favorably with the best Hollywood films, and TV deserves more respect than it’s getting.” Viewers have responded to more varied fare by increasing the amount of time they watch television. During the past decade or so, the average viewer increased his TV consumption by a half an hour, up to a total of 4.5 hours a day.
The variety available on TV is multiplied exponentially when one throws VCRs into the equation. Following one of the quickest possible adoptions of a new technology, about 80 percent of all households with TVs have at least one VCR (see chart 2). In 1990, the average viewer rented the equivalent of about 19 movies a year, a figure that is projected by Communications Industry Report to climb to 30 by 2001. Omnipresent video rental stores give virtually everyone access to a film library that a few decades ago even a millionaire wouldn’t have been able to afford.
One gets a sense of this by considering the offerings of the typical Blockbuster store. Not only is Blockbuster the country’s biggest chain (with about 4,500 stores nationwide), it’s arguably one of the blandest and most restrictive in terms of aesthetic judgment. Blockbuster leans heavily toward the highly commercial fare alluded to in its name. And yet it’s still got a huge and generally impressive selection of films—the typical franchise rents between 7,000 and 10,000 titles—even as its family-oriented policy creates a niche for stores that carry edgier fare, including pornography. According to The New York Times, most Blockbuster franchises have at least two competitors within a couple of miles, suggesting that cultural markets are often not zero-sum games, in which growth for one vendor is loss for another—or, more important, for the consumer.
But VCRs do more than simply allow viewers to watch more TV or film. They profoundly alter the terms of production and consumption. On the production side, movie studios now make roughly as much money from video sales as they do from box office receipts. By providing an after-market, VCRs allow producers—whether large or small, major-studio or independent—to take more risks by giving them a second chance to recoup their investment (that’s one reason why there were 139 U.S.-produced independent films released in 1997, 100 more than a decade ago). Additionally, there’s a robust market for old TV shows, documentaries, and the like, as well as for direct-to-video materials, ranging from porn to children’s series starring the Olsen twins (themselves perhaps a form of porn).
On the consumption side, VCRs allow viewers to watch programs at their leisure, or to effectively watch several shows at once. That inverts what George Gilder has called the “totalitarian” framework of traditional broadcasting, in which the producer of a central signal set the times and terms of reception. Taping further allows individuals to more completely edit what they watch—skipping commercials, fast-forwarding through material they find uninteresting—as well as to “repurpose” material to suit their own desires.
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The culture boom is similarly reshaping book publishing. While an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the demise of print culture, the death of so-called mid-list authors, and the threat to diversity posed by mega-mergers among publishers, actual book sales and related figures suggest a very different picture. Between 1975 and 1996, the number of books sold increased by 817 million units annually. Fifty years ago, Tyler Cowen points out in In Praise of Commercial Culture, there were only 85,000 titles in print in the United States. Today, that figure stands at about 1.3 million.
During the same time frame, the number of American publishers increased from only 357 to around 49,000. “Most of these presses are independent small presses or university presses, rather than corporate giants” and are often dedicated specifically to publishing arcane, non–market-driven products, writes Cowen, who chalks up the explosive growth to a “modern commercial world [that] decentralizes editorial decisions and financial support.” He also notes that “best-sellers account for no more than three percent of sales” in most big stores and provocatively argues that “the relevant question is not how many more copies Grisham sells than Faulkner, but whether notable works of high quality find their appropriate publishing outlets and readers.”
Industry figures suggest they do. During the 1990s, even as publishers ostensibly became obsessed with bottom lines, they responded by publishing and importing more titles. In 1996, for instance, publishers brought out 2,800 more new works of fiction than they did in 1990, 770 more art titles, and 690 more volumes of poetry and drama (see chart 4).
The increase in the number of books available has been matched by an increase in places to get books. Between 1985 and 1993, for instance, the number of “ultimate companies”—outlets selling books in some form or another—rose from 9,200 to almost 20,000. As important, the emergence of superstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble has redefined bookselling by putting a premium on vastness of selection. Both chains claim to stock around 150,000 book titles (and 50,000 music titles) at most stores.
Such staggering numbers have, of course, been eclipsed by Web sellers such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s online outfit (barnesandnoble.com). Boasting sites that include several million titles, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been joined in cyberspace by used-book sites such as Bibliofind.com and Abebooks.com that combine lists from hundreds of used-book stores nationwide. The Web retailers are also leading the way in increasing access to foreign titles that have traditionally been very difficult to find in the States: Amazon already has sites specifically for the United Kingdom and Germany; Barnes & Noble is working with European juggernaut Bertelsmann (which is merging with Random House) for a multi-language site.