In a nation where what we read, view, and do in the privacy of our own home has traditionally been sacrosanct (though admittedly not without legal battles), the people who entertain us now want to usher us into an era where we pay taxes to have the government police what we watch, what we listen to, what we read, and what we download, on the strength of the hypothetical argument that the entertainment industry might be damaged if no one watches the watchers.
As we know, Hollywood does not want its movies copied, the recording industry does not want its records copied, television doesn’t want BitTorrent to let you watch all the episodes of the Honeymooners for free, and no one wants you to be able to watch your local baseball team play home games anywhere unless you pay for a premium cable package. Hollywood wants you to believe that copying a movie is as bad as stealing a purse. Hollywood tells you that you may be prosecuted by the FBI — in English, French and Chinese — every time you play a DVD. Hollywood wants you to think telling its stories to other people is bad, unless you pay the studios every time you tell the story (or sing the song, or show the clip, or replay the highlights). Hollywood, the purveyor of entertainment, demands that you honor the tradition of the market, and insists in a strident voice that “There is no free lunch. No handouts. Everything is pay to play.” From the leer of the carnie barker to the empty smile of the Disneyland cashier, the cold hard truth is that they all just want to be paid. Fun costs money. No change returned.
And we get it. It’s not the 50s anymore, or even the 70s, and those nifty ideas about cheap cable and kids fly free are as archaic as the misguided notion of free love, as tired as apocryphal stories about quarter movies, nickel Hershey bars, and penny arcades. Everybody is entitled to make a living, even the entertainment industry. But . . . remember when you were a kid? How there was still fun to be had at reasonable prices, even – dare I say it – for free? Remember sneaking in to the drive-in? Remember double features? Or Kid’s Night at Jack Murphy Stadium? Or matinee prices that acknowledged that 9-year-olds should get more than a one-dollar discount? Or how about when the library was open on Sundays too? Those days are gone, as cleanly erased as if they had never existed. America’s demand to be entertained every second of every day (when not working, of course) has created a monster that now preys on everyone. The industry that brought us Godzilla and Mighty Mouse, Babe Ruth, and The Three Stooges has become a behemoth that demands a never-ending stream of cash, in exchange for which it churns out entertainment on-demand. There is no educational or cultural event that cannot be dressed up as entertainment in order to separate the consumer – you, me, everyone – from as much money as the market will bear. Want to see the ballet on TV? Pay $35. Want to see a spelling-bee contest? $12. NASCAR? Basketball? Soccer in Argentina? The weather in Swedish, live? It’s available somewhere, try channel 2864. You can see anything you want, hear anything you want, but you have to pay for all of it.
The idea of being able to have everything at your fingertips is alluring, of course, but creates its own category of problems. The reaction in the entertainment world has been, primarily, one of fear. It’s all out there, on the web, in the cloud, in the bit stream, and the corporate executives wake up afraid that you are going to access it, for free. Although the entertainment industry is making more money than it ever has, they are afraid of the 19-year old downloading a new single for his girlfriend, or of you lending your Kindle to someone else as if it were a book (of all things). We are told that these are gateway crimes that must be harshly punished, lest they lead to the more serious violation of . . . what, exactly? Wholesale worldwide piracy? The nationwide promulgation of a hot new single on You Tube before the studios figure out how to monetize it? Do they even really know what it is they fear?
The proposed solution, of course, does not solve the problem. Given that there are several billion people on the planet with internet access, the entertainment industry’s solution to simply monitor everyone is not only bizarre and unworkable, but turns entertainment for the masses into a way to spy upon the masses. This is what one might expect from an industry that came up with a character named Bizarro, the anti-Superman, but it is not a solution. Instead it is merely anti-entertainment, good for no one — not even good for a laugh.