RALEIGH – The Christmas season is past, and the question in the Hood household is a straightforward one: will we ever watch television again?
If the answer turns out to be no, it would not be because I have succumbed to the anti-television animus one can find in various corners of the intelligentsia. If this were 1976, I’d buy it. With only a few channel selections, the chances of finding truly worthwhile programming – History Channel documentaries, political debates, classic films, Star Trek cartoons, you get the picture – would be abysmally low. But given the hundreds of opportunities available on digital cable or satellite, not to mention the easy availability of excellent films and programs on DVD, the statement “there is nothing on TV worth watching” is an indictment of one’s initiative, not the medium.
What I am referring to is the latest acquisition in the Hood technology collection: the online role-playing game City of Heroes. Online RPGs are a fascinating development of the Internet age. Fantasy, science fiction, detective stories, spy capers, superheroes – whatever fictional worlds you might want to enter for an hour, or more likely several hours, can be discovered with a modest financial outlay and a good web connection.
My boys Alex and Andrew probably enjoyed the process of creating a superhero character more than actually using it on adventures and missions in the game’s fictional setting of Paragon City. There are thousands of permutations, including the character’s name, sex, size, dimensions, colors, costumes, powers, origins, and backstory. These kinds of games are far removed from the passive experience of watching TV. They are challenging and allow for plenty of imagination. So far, we’ve re-created one of the best heroes in pulp fiction – John Carter, Warlord of Mars – while also creating a multicultural assortment of such worthies as Jaguar Knight (Mexican), Yi the Archer (Chinese), Agni Avatar (Indian), and Red Phantom (mysteriously Scottish). A couple of sillier ones also crept into the list: Andrew’s appropriately auditory Thunderscream and Alex’s extra-cool Super Energy Girl.
Do I have a more serious point here? Kinda. While it is true that the hundreds of channels of today’s television fare may signify a more competitive environment than was present 30 years ago, it is important not to blunder into the trap of measuring “competition” simply by how many providers there are of a particular good or service. If there was only one TV channel, its owner would still have to compete with other options for the time and attention of audiences, assuming that they could receive their news, information, and entertainment in some other form.
When some politicians see only one or a handful of firms selling something, they tend to see a monopoly or oligopoly. But in economics terms, it would be better to define monopolies as existing when there is some significant barrier to entering a market, typically government-imposed (trade barriers, exclusive franchises, discriminatory taxes, etc.) And the market in question shouldn’t be defined too narrowly. TV isn’t really a market. It is a corner of the entertainment market.
As for the Hoods, we’ve spent much of the last week enthralled, almost obsessively so, with the TV off or ignored. But there is little danger of our time being monopolized by City of Heroes. After all, the boys’ Uncle Richard is taking about acquiring City of Villains. . .
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.