The Chief Business of America Is Entertainment

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The entertainment industry has become a dominant force in American business.  Social media — one of a key and growing segment of the entertainment businesses — includes tech devices, such as cell phones and pads, magazines, print newspapers, movies, games, and pornography.  It has emerged because of the digital way we work today:  released from space and place. Many have flex-jobs, in cars, at home, rather than office, which allow for squeezing in some entertainment. Ear buds, so prevalent on streets, today are likely delivering some form of entertainment:  music, podcasts, even books.

One element of this new age of entertainment is the natural hunger to play, listen to stories, be amused.  The Internet expanded this universe so that we work, shop, play games, socialize, read news — online. The Internet is even more seductive when is marries information and entertainment.

Today’s news is often a form of entertainment. The ever-shrinking news content suffers as more pages are devoted to sports, frivolous books and movies, and gossip about superstars. Who in New England can resist an online or print story about our own fairy-tale couple, Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady? The Brazilian-born fashion model and actress is the darling of tabloids and any roving camera — and said to be worth $150 million. (Oh, yes, she works out at Equinox.) Her superstar husband spends his off-training hours in advertising shots for watches or athletic equipment. They are our entertainment as we read every word about their wanderings.

No one can overlook the glamorous new first lady, Melania Trump, another model.  Americans are addicted to glam.

How we gain our news and amusement is in flux. In the last year alone the use of electronic devices by average Americans has soared. The use of Tablets increased 63 percent and smart phone use increased 60 percent — in one year. As of this January, the evolution of technology is such that the use social media has surged to 69 percent of adults. Some 88 percent of all adults use the Internet, while a cool 77 percent own smart phones.

Steve Jobs once famously said people don’t know what they want until we tell them. The media is the message and tells us what we want.  Studios and media companies focus major amounts of air time on stars, sports, movies, and entertainment. They tell us what to think, what to wear, how to eat and decorate our homes.

Fox News routinely thanks us for inviting them into our homes.   Americans watch an average of 5 hours of TV a day. (That includes streaming services.) The average Joe will watch well over 9 years of TV in his lifetime.  But, we know, there are many other forms of entertainment used on the go.   

A few mega-companies own the entertainment venues. The once-upon-a time movie studios we remember have morphed into bigger corporations:  Paramount (now owned by Viacom), Universal (now part of NBC), Warner Bros (now Time Warner). In the news entertainment business — we have Newscorp (Fox News), Disney (ABC, ESPN, Pixar, Miramax, Marvel studios), Viacom (MTV, Nick NR, BET, CMT Paramount), and Time Warner. Then there is CBS which also owns a number of program sites.

Comcast owns NBC, USA, the Weather channel, to name a few. Now Universal Pictures, once movie-makers, partners with NBC in owning Universal Parks and Resorts in Los Angeles and Orlando. This list of studios and their channels suggests the media industry understands its hold on our eyes and ears.

Consequently, a small number of big companies are in command of the content and quality of our entertainment, and some of their standards are debased, not fit for youth or adult viewing. Stars are born under their lights. Taylor Swift, Adele, and Justin Bieber rose to fame due to the magic dust of social media. Furthermore, these stars know how to manage their exposure. Cute girl, confused Mom, and bad boy, they know their appeal and their audience.

Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Today the chief business of our people is entertainment.

Coolidge wasn’t an entertainer. If anything, he was dull. His campaign, when he was elected in 1924 was “Keep Cool with Coolidge.” As he explained to Americans:  “They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world”.

That is still true today, though the products are greatly focused on entertainment. From the vast cloud of the entertainment business we export movies, TV shows, discs, cellphones, music, and all manner of technology around the world.

We are famous for our entertainers; our icons are the stars. Some say our new president is an entertainer. Analysts have credited Donald Trump’s election to his management of social media.

As workers we have changed from brick and mortar, field and factory, to studios-and-stage country. Once we labored from sunup to sundown, entertained by our own thoughts — now we are consumers of the products manufactured by the great American entertainment machine.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.