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The Price of Media Consumption: Confessions of a Cheap Bastard

September 24th, 2007 | Jonathan Gray

We all seem to have our set price for how much any media should cost. I’m cheap, so mine are likely lower than many. Only two of my (admittedly small collection of) PS2 games were ever bought new, since $50 seems too much. I don’t buy CDs anymore, only singles, and even then only in $10 batches. I all but gave up on live theatre after leaving England where, as a student, I lived ten minutes from most theatres of note, and could get student rush seats for $20 or lower. When I go to the movie theatre in New York, I usually try to see two films for the price of one, since $11.75 is too much for most films. I get most of my books through publisher payments for doing reviews, since I don’t like spending $30 on a book. I don’t buy DVDs for the most part, since they’re too pricey.

This places most of my media purchases between $1 and $15. Now, on one hand, I’m very aware that there is little logic to this, comparatively. A video game will offer potentially hundreds of hours of entertainment if it’s good, yet I won’t spend $50 on it? Ditto with a CD for $20? But I don’t make sense, so let’s not rely on the presence of a rational Jonathan to solve this issue. Instead, let me push past the irrationality of me, and discuss how these cost decisions affect my consumption. Price makes certain types of consumption more likely and other less likely. Read on below the fold.For instance, though I love movies, I rarely see them one at a time anymore, unless they’re special films (The Simpsons), or seen on special occasions (with family at holidays). My zeal for doing “double-sneakies,” as my best friend Rob calls them, also means that I usually watch films alone, since few have the time or stamina to spend 5-6 hours watching film on a weekday when double-sneakies are easiest to execute. And it means I watch lots of films at midday, since my personal ethics rule against sneaking into a second film at a peak time. In other word, I don’t tend to watch films like most people are at least assumed to (ie: in the evening, with friends, as an event). Instead, I need to chose films that might complement each other. At the same time, though, my expectations for films have gone down since I’ve started watching this way – a bad film only really bugs me if its follow-up or lead-in film was also bad. Moreover, since I need 5-6 hours free during a day to watch, I tend only to see films when I’m burnt out and need a whole day off (note: a whole day off work is quite rare for me. I’m a workaholic), and thus I’m often just content to see pretty pictures in front of me. Perhaps I’ve become more like cinema’s earliest spectators: maybe even film of a moving train might impress me? (Though somehow I doubt Under Siege 2 would ever impress me). I still find myself able to coldly evaluate films, but that’s the academic/intellectual side speaking, whereas I’ll often appreciate junky stuff personally.

This need to binge on media to get my money’s worth is also an issue with television. Not so much basic cable, which has somehow slipped under my cheap-ass radar as an acceptable expense. But when I got HBO and Showtime, I went crazy on their On Demand programs once I knew they were free. I hadn’t had either channel through most of some pretty good shows’ runs, so I was left in the position of trying to watch entire seasons in the short time during which HBO or Showtime decided to make those early seasons available once more. Watching The Wire this way was fantastic, as with Weeds, Huff, Rome, and Dexter. It made me a “binge fan,” though, like the really fat guy at a buffet pulling up a seat to the shrimp table and clinically tucking in his napkin before chowing down. I’ve always had a good head for character names and so forth, and putting the episodes all together in rapid succession made me an expert on tiny minutiae too, so I’d emerge from these On Demand blitzes an instant fan, as though I’d just gone through the transporter from The Fly with my Boba Fett action figure. Inevitably, though, such saturation sets expectations for continued saturation, and many of these shows started to drag and seem annoying or at least less amazing when I had to watch them week-to-week. At the height of my television binges, I’d also go online and see the state of debate, and sometimes take part in it, yet later, as the show slowed down, I’d become less interested in the fan world around it, since the entire universe of the show no longer seemed as intense, pressing, and of the now. Eventually, as the shows I cared about ended their seasons, I cancelled HBO and Showtime, wondering why I was paying $22 for two channels that showed me very little. That said, I’ll likely renew them at season’s end (or for Season 5 of The Wire, a notable exception), to do yet more binging.

Admittedly, I’m inclined to binge fandom anyways, having worked my way through 30 Kurosawa films in almost as many days once with a roommate and friend. And when my friend Bertha lent me Buffy Seasons 1-3 on VHS, insisting I watch the show, and stating no deadline for doing so, I nevertheless raced through them, hence becoming an instant Buffy fan.

So it’s not just price. Perhaps price is merely the excuse? I could afford a DVR (or Netflix), but avoid it since deep down I know that its perpetual promise of endless binge fandoms could ruin my productivity and eat my soul. Perhaps price is merely an excuse for others too? Of course price is a very real issue for many, posing a very real barrier both to hardware and software acquisition, so I don’t mean to sound as though I’m unaware of this. But there are also lost of people who, for instance, say they couldn’t afford Netflix yet buy a pile of magazines weekly. Or my parents and one of their friends once expressed amazement that I was paying $22/month for HBO and Showtime, when they regularly spend as much or more buying films on DVD that they’ve never seen before. So while price is a very real barrier, it’s also the old reliable phantom barrier. If price divisions cause a Very Real Digital Divide (VRDD) between the technology haves and have-nots, they also cause a Bullshit Digital Divide (BSDD).

However, at this point, I’d like to invoke Ursinus College and its tuition rates. What does a liberal arts college in eastern Pennsylvania have to do with all this? A while back, I read an article in The New York Times about Ursinus’ recruitment woes, and their odd experiment to get those numbers up, by raising tuition. The idea was that their brand would look better if it cost more. Ursinus was a deal compared to other local liberal arts colleges, and so on paper looked like a crappier option to many. So Ursinus upped its rates, yet also upped student aid to offset the raise. While one might cynically wonder about a college that takes its pricing strategies from Best Buy or PC Richards, adopting a rebate economy, the college at least seemed happy with the results.

But let’s read that back onto media consumption, and ask whether something similar is happening in the ranks of media and popular culture pricing. Does “more expensive” mean “better” to some? Certainly, Broadway musicals seem priced in this way, so ludicrously high that they seem to insist on their utter brilliance. Ditto with concert prices. And live sports events. I wonder whether in a mediated age, the live events jack their prices so high in order to suggest that the experience is that much better, banking on consumers thinking, “so, I can watch the Rangers on television for free, or in the Gardens for $80? Well, clearly the $80 means it’s that much better than at home.” I suspect, too, that the price works as a defense against not liking the experience. After having agreed to shell out $80 to see a sports game, and after adding overpriced beer and food, one positively must agree with one’s inner cynic that the cynic isn’t invited, and should instead stay at home and watch some reality TV. If you’ve paid for it to be fantastic, it needs to be fantastic, and even if it isn’t, you’ll convince yourself that it was.

Meanwhile, with television starting to flirt with a pay-per-show economy, via premium cable/satellite packages, DVDs, and iTunes, we can also start to convince ourselves first, that specific television shows are better because we need to pay (more) for them, and second, that television as a whole is better because we need to pay for it. While this allows the medium more legitimacy, it also produces sickening snobbery (“It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Yeah, right. I’m sure it’s not latenight softcore porn, it’s HBO too, no?). And ultimately it makes cheap bastards like me start to worry about a future that requires me to spend more than $1-15 per product.

This feels unconcluded, for indeed it’s a record of ideas in motion, but I guess blogging allows me that right, so I’ll end it here. At least reading this only cost you time.

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  1. September 27th, 2007 at 08:19 | #1

    Thanks for this, jonathan! And I should confess that I’ve been so spoilt by the “pirate” network of Indian films that I just flat out refuse to pay more than $5 for a DVD…in fact, when I was in Vancouver for SCMS, I went to the punjabi section and ended up bargaining with a storeowner (there were three of us, and I felt it was only fair that she bring down the price of each DVD given we’d be buying so many). I feel bad…now that I’m employed and all, perhaps I should start supporting the good folks in Bollywood and buy the original DVDs?

  2. allison
    November 13th, 2007 at 08:14 | #2

    As a binge-er myself, I feel your pain. Netflix is a scary, scary place for people like us. Waiting for the next disc in Rome/Friday Night Lights/Entourage/The O.C./many others that shall not be named can be tortuous… 2 whole days?? How do these shows get such a foothold in my life??

    An interesting twist: after finishing an entire season of a series, I found myself imposing a break (a month or so) to get a sense of how it felt for those watching it when it was broadcast who had to wait months and months for those season-ending cliffhangers to be resolved.

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