Film Subsidies

Tennessee Taxpayers Forced to Keep Bankrolling Failed Television Show

Millions to keep Nashville on the air after cancellation.


'Nashville' / ABC

You might have been one of the few fans of the television show Nashville, a soapy drama on ABC following the lives of country music performers. Chances are you probably were not, though. The show was kind of a ratings dud, and it was canceled by ABC in May at the end of its fourth season.

And then it wasn't. A benefactor has resurrected the show from the dead and has moved it to country music cable network CMT. CMT and Hulu will air a fifth season of the show, consisting of 22 episodes.

That benefactor? The taxpayers of the state of Tennessee. As part of the deal, the state of Tennessee will be providing $8.5 million in incentives, and the City of Nashville will provide another $1 million. This is actually an increase in incentives over the previous two seasons of the show. Failure has been good to Nashville, at least in terms of getting themselves subsidized. Based on The Tennessean's calculations, the show has received about $57 million in subsidies and incentives after folding in this upcoming season.

As is typical, defenders of using public funds to subsidize entertainment empires defend their position on the basis of creating jobs. From The Tennessean:

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said the salvaging of the show by CMT is great news for the city.

"Not only will hundreds of film production workers be keeping their jobs, we will also be keeping the greatest advertising tool for Music City that we have ever seen," Barry said.

But why should taxpayers throughout the state have to pay for the salaries of people to produce a show that apparently people aren't interested in watching? Wouldn't it have been better for those television people to go work on shows that are actually successful? But then they wouldn't be serving the City of Nashville's goals of promoting its music culture. Call me deeply skeptical at the idea that the show actually serves as an advertising tool for Nashville. Given its poor ratings, it seems more likely that it's the reverse: The show's audience is probably made up of those who are already fans of the Nashville country music scene.

These entertainment subsides also have the whiff of the "Broken Windows" economic fallacy about them. When the government takes money from some people and gives it to other people and calls this job creation, it fails to account for what that money might have accomplished had the government not taken it and redirected it in the first place.

Mark Cunningham of the free market-promoting Beacon Center of Tennessee explained why the state's citizens should have been jazzed about the show dying (before it was resurrected):

The show serves as a great example of everything that is wrong with corporate handouts. First of all, study after study shows that film incentives have a terrible return on investment. The government always loves to make up projections and equate completely unrelated outcomes when it defends the "benefits" of giving away taxpayer dollars to corporations.

But even the government can't lie its way into pretending film incentives have any real value. The average return on investment for film incentives is somewhere around 30 cents on the dollar.

Second, the show "Nashville" followed the example of many corporations across the United States in holding the state that gave it money hostage. Once the state and city of Nashville gave the show millions in taxpayer dollars, the show's producers threatened to leave Nashville and film in Austin, Texas, if we didn't pony up more taxpayer money. This is just legalized blackmail. It's like feeding the birds (or in this case vultures); once you give them food they are going to keep coming back for more.

I would add that it probably isn't even necessary. The final episode of the show drew in 8 million viewers. If those viewers were willing to shell out just $1 a piece to keep their show on the air for a whole season, that would eliminate much of the "need" for state funding. And if viewers aren't willing to shell out a single extra dollar, then are they truly fans of the show?