Film Subsidies

Tennessee Taxpayers Forced to Keep Bankrolling Failed Television Show

Millions to keep Nashville on the air after cancellation.

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'Nashville'
'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?

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  1. Call me deeply skeptical at the idea that the show actually serves as an advertising tool for Nashville.

    I’d never heard of this show, so skepticism is definitely warranted.

    1. Country music is what I most often listen to and I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks ago when one of the songs for the show popped up in a random country music playlist.

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  2. Four seasons? It has been on that long? It seems like just yesterday when the cheerleader from Heroes got breast implants.

  3. Connie Britton? Gay people are weird.

  4. As the article points out, the people watching this show likely know what Nashville’s all about and the show itself will make no difference in their decision to visit or not.

    Advertising my ass. Much more likely some politician’s cousin has the catering contract for the production crew or some other cronyist bullshit.

    1. Exactly this. And I was hoping I wouldn’t have to drive around their damn roadblocks anymore. BTW, your waiter/waitress in Nashville likely has more talent than the ‘performers’ in this show….

      1. Damn roadblocks is right. They tend to do extensive filming in the blocks around my office (and even in our building sometime). P.I.A.

  5. 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.

    I’ve read many iterations of this idea (Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson was the first time) and I have yet to tire of reading it/them.

    Another great article and more humorous Alt-Text from Scott.

    1. Seriously, Scott needs to start doing “How to alt-text” workshops for the rest of Reason staff.

  6. we will also be keeping the greatest advertising tool for Music City that we have ever seen

    I’m pretty sure people had heard of Opryland and the famed Nashville recording studios before that shitty soap opera came out.

  7. As a former Memphian, I am not surprised in the least that Nashville somehow got gobs of taxpayer money to spend on itself.

    It was always amusing to watch the Memphis legislators get rolled in the appropriation process each year by Nashville. The Memphis votes were split into numerous factions who were more worried about settling scores against each other than in getting state spending. Nashville was always united and would get goody after goody. The Titans are a good example. Memphis was denied a franchise several times by the NFL despite having been the home of a good USFL team. Then the Oilers want to move and Nashville gets the funding to build them a home.

    So yeah, Nashville swindling the hillbillies in Memphis out of their tax money is par for the course.

  8. [pre-empitve = i disagree entirely with public funding like this]

    I have heard it mentioned before that the only time Southerners are ever included in a contemporary TV show …

    (*not even as the actual ‘subject’, but merely as participating characters)

    …its to use them in one of a few stereotypical roles = the dumb yokel, the inveterate racist, or the evil corporate oil-executive

    you’re more likely to hear American TV-show hosts with a British or Aussie accent than you will anyone with a Georgia or Alabama twang.

    Basically, the complaint is that a huge swath of America is basically ‘ignored’ by the media.

    And i think there’s probably some truth to that.

    i think there’s stuff on lower-grade channels/networks which people could point to and say, “lookie there! Duck Dynasty!! or American Guns!! and did you know Bass Fishing is *really* a sport??”

    That’s not what i’m talking about. or they at least simply reinforce my above point = the entire notion of “the South” is a media cliche.

    I still think the idea of public-funding for some TV show like this is incredibly stupid and not the business of government; and of course there’s nothing stopping anyone in the south from making their own damn media.

    its just that i think i understand the reasons politicians can pull a move like this and get away with it.

    1. Friday Night Lights
      Hart of Dixie
      One Tree Hill
      NCIS: New Orleans
      Containment
      Rosewood

      Oh, look, a bunch of current and recently ended shows set in the South with positive characters.

      1. Don’t forget The Walking Dead.

        1. “WHERE’S CAROL?”

      2. Whew, now I don’t have to date (or out) myself by pointing out Designing Women.

        1. In the Heat of the Night
          Matlock
          A Different World (I think the college was supposed to be in the South)
          Walker, Texas Ranger
          The Wire

          1. So late to the party, but as a Marylander I can say without reservation that the only people who believe Maryland (where The Wire takes place) is the South are people from Maryland who don’t want to be lumped in with Pennsylvania or, God forbid, New Jersey. Although I’ve always argued that the South starts around Upper Marlboro (thirty years ago you could’ve said Annapolis) we will always be Yankees to anyone from Virginia on down.

      3. i’m simply repeating a complaint i’ve heard repeatedly over the years. not one i’m making – i’m a yankee who doesn’t watch TV.

        I’m not sure your handful of examples really even addresses the point made.

        e.g. “” think i understand the reasons politicians can pull a move like this and get away with it.””

  9. Not that I disagree with the basic premise of the article wrt to government funding of business but there are TONS of long running shows that would KILL to have 8 million viewers in an episode, Nashville may not have been a ratings giant but with the additional revenue generated by the music sales and concerts not present with almost any other shows it wasn’t exactly a money loser and the problems with the show seemed to stem mostly with a couple of poor writing decisions and one of it’s stars dealing with a pretty severe case of post partum depression which kept her off the screen most of the last year

  10. This is not to condone the tax breaks that the TV show received, but $8.5 million is pretty low for what large TV show productions get out of other states. ABC definitely played the blackmail card but the checkbook was never completely opened for them, especially when you compare it to other industries. Nissan has received over $200 million in tax incentives to move their corporate HQ here to Nashville, and Dell received well over $100 million to move a plant here as well.

    Again, I deplore any subsidies whatsoever for any industry but the TV show subsidies are the least of our problems in Nashville.

    1. I thought the labor and tax laws were so much better in states like TN. What the hell are they doing paying companies to move there?

  11. Probably one of the best things they’ve spent their money on, I’d wager.

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  13. It’s the Gorbachev delusion again. Named after Mikhail Gorbachev who attempted to restrict alcohol consumption in the USSR without figuring out that people can make alcohol with anything sugary, the Gorbachev delusion is a belief in the ability of government to do forbid things that common sense says can not be effectively banned.

    1. Sorry meant to post this to another article.

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