May 21st, 2022


The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published March 17, 2020

First the NBA postponed its season, with no immediate resumption in sight, and then March Madness was canceled. Broadway has been shuttered, along with other public entertainments across the country, Disneyland included.

These are prudent if belated steps. Nonetheless a question arises: If every empire needs bread and circuses, where will Americans turn for the latter? Which public spectacles will keep us all distracted?

One obvious response is the internet. For younger generations especially, there is plenty of spectacle to be found there. The gaming sector, for instance, is now larger in economic terms than movie and music sales combined. And whether it is World of Warcraft or Fortnite, many of these games and platforms are indeed spectacular.

That said, most of the population still does not participate in gaming. And however much people may love their Facebook pages, they do not regard the internet as a major source of vivid spectacle.

Given enforced captivity and its frustrations, many of us will start by rewatching some of our favorite movies or putting on our favorite music. That too may get tired after a few days, as we humans seem to crave the very newest and latest culture, rather than the time-honored classics.

It is my personal hope that people will start reading aloud to each other, much as the Victorians might have enjoyed Robert Browning's "The Ring and the Book" in a family circle. Audiobooks can provide a more individualistic version of this experience, but still they don't seem enough to pick up the slack.

It is instructive to look back to the days of World War II. The U.S. government played a critical role in encouraging Hollywood to make cheery movies, and it helped by not trying to force every actor into the armed services.

Major league baseball, the national pastime of the era, continued to hold a regular season and a World Series, again to distract people from wartime worries. Many top players, such as Ted Williams, were away fighting, but there were adequate replacements. The government knew that wartime drama could not be the only drama on tap.

With covid-19, the goal is to keep people at home, at least if they are not essential workers. But if staying at home is too boring, cabin fever will take over and people will run out to social gatherings when they ought to be staying put. So solving the entertainment problem is one very real piece of the puzzle for minimizing the effects of the coronavirus and keeping Americans not just in good spirits but healthy.

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The very worst scenario is that the coronavirus itself - how it is playing out, how officials and celebrities and neighbors are reacting - becomes our main entertainment. It could become an ongoing horror show that drives us crazy and makes people even more cynical about politics.

To avoid such a mix of frustration and terror, I have a modest proposal: We should restructure a few of our traditional entertainments to be safe from the coronavirus. They could captivate the nation and serve the functions of escapism, but also tie the nation together with bonds of compassion and positive feeling. And if, as David Brooks suggests, pandemics make us selfish and brutal, public entertainment might help boost our mood.

Imagine repurposing some public parks into nighttime drive-in movie theaters (tickets would be available only online, of course). Going out would be a new way to partake in mass socializing, and life-affirming movies could be shown, with a few tragedies for those of us who will seek out the sterner stuff.

Or how about proceeding with some version of the NBA Finals? Take a subset of the best qualifying teams, test every player for coronavirus, isolate them in a remote area with a college gymnasium, and have them proceed with a shortened version of the real thing in front of only a TV crew. With so many other public events closed down, television viewership would probably reach an all-time high, and the sense of drama would be incredible. It would be one NBA Finals we would never forget, and the quality of play would respond to the very high psychological stakes.

I expect professionals in the entertainment business could come up with better ideas yet.

Yes, it is essential to prioritize the medical, economic, political and international problems of this pandemic. But in that rush, we should remember the wisdom of the U.S. government during World War II and be sure that entertainment is part of the solution.


Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

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