Mass entertainment: Winner takes all

Technology has made more entertainment available to more people than ever before. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, billions now enjoy an almost limitless choice of entertainment. Yet increasingly they choose  blockbuster hits, such as Disney films, and a few dominant tech platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube and Netflix. The same technological forces that have created all those choices are also pointing consumers towards the biggest hits by means of rankings, recommendation algorithms and social networks. Most people seem to want what everyone else wants.


This week The Economist publishes a special report on mass entertainment, written by Gady Epstein, the paper’s media editor.  


The business of entertainment is becoming more skewed towards the best performers. Of the thousands of films released worldwide last year, the top five earners were all Disney films. The more esoteric products sell in very small numbers, even though the digital marketplace makes distribution much easier and cheaper. Last year Americans bought 8.7m different digital song titles, more than twice as many as in 2007. But 96% of those sold fewer than 100 copies.

Recommendation algorithms tend to push what other people like, skewing consumers’ choices towards popular items. However, some digital purveyors try to broaden consumers’ tastes. For example,  Spotify’s Discover Weekly, a playlist specially tailored to each individual listener’s taste, offers mostly new songs each week, with an occasional familiar tune mixed in.

Intense competition for viewers’ attention has resulted in what some commentators call “Peak TV”, offering an unprecedented choice of excellent television programmes that may not be sustainable in the longer term. Television networks are now competing with Netflix and Amazon, and not all of them will survive. But for the time being the traditional pay-TV channels are kept going by live sports.

Catering to minority tastes can still provide a living. In China, people in rustbelt towns and rural areas are live-streaming entertainment for each other every night, singing songs and telling jokes in exchange for digital virtual gifts from fans that can be exchanged for cash. The live-streaming market in China was worth $3bn last year, and a few performers can earn more than $1m a year, while many earn a modest living from it.

Despite all the technology now available, consumers still want to attend live events in person. Revenue from concert tickets in America more than doubled in the decade to 2015, to $6.9bn. Spending at theme parks has been rising continuously since the financial crisis and was estimated at $40bn in 2015. Most strikingly, people will pay thousands of dollars to attend a spectacular live event, even though they could experience it for next to nothing at home. Sometimes there is no substitute for the roar of the crowd.


The link to the special report can be found here: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21716467-technology-has-given-billions-people-access-vast-range-entertainment-gady

To interview the author, Gady Epstein for The Economist, please contact:

Holly Donahue/The Economist (UK), hollydonahue@economist.com/+44 (0) 20 7576 8379

Lauren Hackett/The Economist (US), laurenhackett@economist.com/+1 212 554 0639


The Economist is one of the most widely recognised and well-read current affairs publications. The paper covers politics, business, science and technology, and books and arts, concluding each week with the obituary. In addition to the web-only content such as blogs, debates and audio/video programmes available on the website, The Economist is available to download for reading on Android, Blackberry PlayBook, iPhone or iPad devices. The Economist Espresso, our daily briefing smartphone app, is also available for download via iTunes App Store or Google Play.