If the Long Tail jumped the Shark, would it make the sound of one hand clapping?

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Culture mavens looking for the exact moment when the growing popularity of Chris Anderson's provocative thesis of the "Long Tail" finally exceeded its own specific gravity and collapsed into the Singularity should take note of Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger's explanation for why he spent $150 million on Michael Mann's big-screen version of Miami Vice:

"The key on looking at the profitability of Michael [Mann]'s movies is that they've got a very long tail, well after the theatrical run."

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  1. I’m the opposite of a culture maven. Lacking advanced knowledge in any field or any direct connection to the sources of innovation, I only become aware of a trend once it has filtered down to the general population via the mainstream media, and the trendsetters have already moved on to other things.

    Therefore, that the moment I become aware of any growing phenomenon approximately marks the idea’s best-before date, after which, it’s all downhill.

    And I’m sorry to report that I read Chris Anderson’s book last weekend.

  2. Whenever soneone mentions a “long tail” in the same breath as an 80s series like MV, what pops into my mind is The Mullet.

    I never watched Miami Vice. Two cops who dressed like that had to be on the take, right?

    Kevin

  3. You may be selling yourself short, Russ. I realized (too late in life, of course) that I was holding myself back in life through my perpetual sense of having gotten to the party 15 minutes after it stopped being cool. The turning point was when I moved out to San Francisco to become a dotcommer (before the term “dotcom” was even in use), and immediately had the feeling that this whole internet bubble was obviously over-just the fact that I was involved showed there was no future in it. This was in 1996!

  4. This is why I haven’t been to a movie since Serenity came out last year. The banality of Hollywood knows no limits it seems.

  5. Way to burst the tech bubble, Cavanaugh!

  6. So, when does “jump the shark” jump the shark?

  7. Nothing but sharks all the way down…

  8. Wouldn’t “Long Tail Theory” imply that shark jumping is no longer as significant an issue as it might have been in the past?

    Today pushing something too far so that it loses its “cool factor” only means that at worst it’ll spend the rest of eternity generating a steady trickle of profits from the fringe devotees, because the cost of single-servings has fallen low enough to makes it feasible to supply them. (e.g. decades of “Happy Days” reruns on some triple-digit cable channel)

    In the past, the risk was that the your profits could vanish entirely, because the few remaining loyal consumers who might still have wanted it, even if only for its kitcsh appeal, wouldn’t have been a big enough market to be commercially supplied (which itself is a significant source of kitsch appeal).

    However, if this is true, then Long Tail Theory might mean the end of kitsch as we know it. If everything is always readily available, then there’s no longer any pride to be had in being a part of something outside the mainstream that is rare and difficult to come by.

  9. I used to really dig ‘Miami Vice’, this was of course before I learned that the cops were the bad guys, and the drug dealers are heroic entrepeneurs.

  10. Good point, Tim.

    I may have screwed myself out of riding the housing bubble for the same reason. I thought the situation was bubbleriffic in 2002. Then again, if you don’t have the risk-taking gene, it might be wise to run with your feeling. The one time you take the plunge you might be on the wrong side of a bubble.

    In my case, I joined a dot com in April of 2000. Right when the stock market did, in fact, turn south. Four glorious months later, I managed to get another dot-com job, but they didn’t succumb because they didn’t go for the large area under the bell curve like most of the dot-coms *cough*pets.com*cough*.

  11. The turning point was when I…

    The en vogue term is “tipping point”. Please use it even if it’s not appropriate.

  12. And yet, Miami hasn’t jumped the shark, (well, we do have the occasional tourist nibbled by one).Whatever else, MiamiVice showed that you don’t need a big gummit “landmark” to iconify a city. While there is a 500 foot tall statue of Columbus sitting around somewhere, most of the time Miami is just South Beach. Even the publicity pics at the Miami Vice website tend to shots under the Port Bridge, skyscrapers, etc…and not a peek at either of our 2 (count’em 2) less-than-20-year-old downtown basketball arenas. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

  13. Russ R:

    There is still such a thing as niche identity. The acceptance of nerds in the post-dot-com world has led to a flowering of geek culture, not a diminution thereof.

  14. I always thought that it was interesting that music follows this trend as well…when I was a kid, listening to Led Zeppelin when everyone else listened to Destiny’s Child made me odd-man-out; now that Napster, LimeWire, BitTorrent etc. are all available, being a classic rock fan is kind of clich?. This has to mean something, I mean, my father didn’t listen to his parents music, so why is their a full-bore generation listening to their parents music?

  15. kwais and I rarely agree, but his post is one of the funniest and most insightful I’ve read this week.

    Slate has a good takedown of The Long Tail, btw. His primary example of an industry (one of many – if not most) that defies Anderson’s model is the first one that came to my mind as a massive exception…the oil industry.

  16. “There is still such a thing as niche identity. The acceptance of nerds in the post-dot-com world has led to a flowering of geek culture, not a diminution thereof.”

    But if more and more people are easily able to break away from the mainstream and be unique, doesn’t that strip away some of the sense of pride and accomplishment that used to go along with being a non-comforming individual?

    It’s no longer a very exclusive club if everyone can join.

  17. In the past, the risk was that the your profits could vanish entirely, because the few remaining loyal consumers who might still have wanted it, even if only for its kitcsh appeal, wouldn’t have been a big enough market to be commercially supplied (which itself is a significant source of kitsch appeal).

    That’s not necessarily true. Take Married With Children. Somehow it managed to avoid the curse of Ted McGinley. However, the season with Seven almost killed the show. Had they not wised up and killed him after a season, the show would’ve disappeared and even the hard core fans would avoid all episodes associated with that bane of the planet.

  18. “His primary example of an industry (one of many – if not most) that defies Anderson’s model is the first one that came to my mind as a massive exception…the oil industry.”

    I thought the “Long Tail” only applied to media products and/or e-commerce.

  19. “This has to mean something, I mean, my father didn’t listen to his parents music, so why is their a full-bore generation listening to their parents music?”

    Because our parents’ generation isn’t the one that must bear the shame of Korn and System of a Down.

    *sheds a single tear. Like that Indian in the litter commercial.*

  20. It’s no longer a very exclusive club if everyone can join.

    Everyone isn’t joining; that’s the point of the long tail. It means that enough people will join to make a subgroup economically viable to serve. That’s how come there are new progressive rock bands making their living selling recordings and touring. The Internets have aggregated enough demand to make it worth supplying the niche.

    But when you go out into that big blue-ceilinged room, or a hipster party downtown, you’ll find nobody there is going to talk about the latest Spock’s Beard release. (which wasn’t very good, btw. I mean, uh, psssht. Nerds.)

  21. “It means that enough people will join to make a subgroup economically viable to serve. “

    And hence NerdCore.

  22. I thought the “Long Tail” only applied to media products and/or e-commerce.

    The Slate piece, points out how businesses are often enraptured with the “hot new business philosophy” and muses about how the Long Tail might outgrow its boundaries with numerous businesses applying (or misapplying) the philosophy.

    Tim Wu, the article’s author, also suggests Anderson might be adding to the hype (I have not yet read the book) by trying to make the case for applying “Long Tail” thought to other industries and sectors like labor, education and even national security.

    Wu goes on to use the oil industry as one of many examples of businsesses that won’t or can’t benefit substantially from Long Tail thinking.

  23. I think we need to differentiate and define the long tail. The long tail applies to a small (and ever shrinking) but non-zero demand for (media) products, long after that demand has peaked. That is a different phenomenon from nostalgia/kitsch/retro where products (and offshoots) enjoy are resurgence, usually reworked to incorporate modern perspective.

    Making a MV movie, is just the latest example of the head-scratching (because it so rarely hits) obsession Hollywood has with remaking, old (good) movies, old TV shows, and old Comics, into crappy new movies.

    I’ve long puzzled over why they keep repeating this error (what’s the definition of insanity?) And I think we’ve hit on it, it is this misunderstanding of the long tail, coupled with the classic blunder (right after the one about Sicilians) of form over substance.

  24. The long tail applies to a small (and ever shrinking) but non-zero demand for (media) products, long after that demand has peaked.

    Aren’t you misusing the concept exactly the same way as the quoted chairman misused it?

    The “tail” in “the long tail” is a tail in probabilistic distribution, not a tail in time.

    The latter may indeed become the former. But the product in question does not have to be a media product, nor does it ever have to peak or to garner any general recognition whatsoever.

  25. This is why I haven’t been to a movie since Serenity came out last year. The banality of Hollywood knows no limits it seems.

    The best movie you will see all year is called “Brick”

    Heathers meets filn noir…and unlike Heathers it has a plot.

  26. shame of Korn and System of a Down

    donovan and the monkies…don’t forget disco

    or Fusion jazz. HA!

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