The Electric Commentary

Friday, September 24, 2004

Drugs and Television

There is a lot of crap on television. In fact, people tend to get nostalgic about the "good old days" of television. For some it’s "The Honeymooners" and for others it’s "Mash" or "Cheers" or "Cosby." However, the recent increase in crap on television is one of the greatest developments in the history of entertainment.

"Crap on TV" is viewed by most people as a symptom of something negative. They look at it as a sign of declining cultural standards, a lack of creativity, even a sick society. It is, in reality, a symptom of unprecedented creativity, diversity, and quality.

Twenty short years ago there were three networks plus PBS. They offered a limited variety of shows. Sitcoms and dramas in primetime, soaps during the day, news at 5:30, late night talk shows, and an occasional sporting event were offered up by every network. The networks did produce some quality shows, but most of the time they produced crap. However, because there were only a few choices, the crap was not as pervasive as it is today, and the few good shows seemed great by comparison.

Fast-forward to 2004. We now have several hundred channels and the crap count has reached astronomic levels. There are shows called "Wife Swap" and perhaps more horribly, "Trading Spouses," which must be a rip off of the former. There is a show in which people eat horrible things for money, at least seven shows featuring fat, bald middle-aged men with hot wives, and an entire channel devoted to home and garden care. However, it was not all bad news. "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" put HBO on the map and spawned viewing parties across the country. Other networks started experimenting with quirky shows as well, breaking away from the cliches of the typical network show.

USA came up with Monk, about an obsessive-compulsive detective. It is basically a quirky version of the old fashioned detective show (a la "Sherlock Holmes," or, if you prefer, "Murder She Wrote"). FX produced "The Shield," a gritty detective drama that cast officers as corrupt anti-heroes. TLC took a popular British show, "Changing Rooms," and Americanized it into the hugely popular "Trading Spaces." And a group of 100,000 or so nerds has now single-handedly managed to get "Farscape" back on the Sci-Fi Channel on two separate occasions. This last feat was accomplished through the awesome power of DVD sales, which has further increased the ability of networks to cater to very specific tastes.

In the days of the "Big Three" networks, successfully competing required drawing as large an audience as possible. There were only 2 competitors, and as a result, if a show failed to draw several million people it had to be cancelled. A network had to cater to wide ranging tastes, and when one attempts to cater to everyone they usually satisfy no one. This was the situation of television production for as long as there had been television. With the introduction of DVD, a cheap, compact means of recording and distributing large high-quality collections of programs became feasible. Suddenly, a show did not need to draw millions of viewers to be a success. If a network could sell 100,000 DVD collections at fifty dollars each, the show would be as profitable, if not more profitable, than if it had been a big hit. Networks could cater to even smaller audiences and re-release old shows on DVD for almost no overhead cost.

The result of this surge in productivity has been a lot of crap, but it has also created enough "good" programming so that there is not enough actual time to watch it all. And as this is the case, it doesn't matter that all of the crap exists. Crap is a necessary byproduct of innovation, but the good results are worth every "Out of This World," and "Bob Patterson."

So what does this have to do with drugs? Simple. As with television, people tend to focus on all of the "Perfect Strangers" that results from drug development in the US, while ignoring the "Sopranos" that are produced.

There are a few major criticisms of pharmaceutical companies in the US, and I assert that each can be applied with equal force to television production.

People claim that drug companies have a lot of unnecessary overhead, as they employ a lot of bureaucratic staff, advertising departments, managers, in addition to R & D. First of all, you could make this argument about any company, but, if a drug company is being inefficient, then shareholders should abandon it and it should go out of business. Drug companies, like all other companies, are trying to make money. It is logically inconsistent to accuse them of taking in record profits and at the same time accuse them of employing too much overhead, yet people do this all of the time. It would be like accusing HBO of employing an advertising department instead of focusing solely on show production, while at the same time claiming that they were "overcharging" and taking in "record profits." This argument makes no sense.

People also claim that advertising is worthless for a drug company, and that it drives up costs. This charge also makes no sense. The argument is that money that could go into research or lowering prices instead goes into an ad campaign, but this is not how ad campaigns are funded. Ads are run with the intention of bringing in more revenue. They do not cost money, they make it. This money can go into R & D, or into lowering prices to increase competitiveness, and if an ad fails to do so, then the company will stop running the ad. When NBC advertises that "Scrubs" is on Tuesday’s at 8:00, the money they used to broadcast the ad did not drive up costs for their advertisers, nor did it detract from the production of "Joey." In reality, the value of "Scrubs" is increased, which is a benefit to advertisers, and may even keep "Joey" going for a few episodes longer than it otherwise would.

Finally, people often complain about the production of seemingly frivolous drugs, or of drugs that are basically copies of existing drugs. This is in stark contrast to many other countries where drug production focuses on "serious diseases." I will refer to this as the "foreign system."
The foreign system is just like the old three-network set up of television production. They attempt to cater to a broad audience and as a result, focus only on widespread health problems. Cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and other common (and serious) problems are researched, and I admit that some truly important breakthroughs have been produced in this fashion. In the American system, we have a dynamic drug industry that caters not only to the diseases of the masses, but also to ailments that affect a small number of people, or that treat less serious illnesses. This system has many beneficial side effects.

First and foremost, the American system creates a larger knowledge base. Diverse research can lead to techniques that are applicable for multiple ailments. Perhaps someone looking into a cure for sickle-cell anemia could stumble upon a cure for Leukemia. It may have seemed silly to sell a show on DVD when "The Sopranos" first attempted it (Note: another show probably did this first, but for the sake of argument, I am going to assume that it was "The Sopranos"), but because they did so successfully, other networks followed suit, and I now own several seasons of "The Simpsons."

Second, the American system protects minorities better. Some people have rare ailments. In a centralized system, it is inefficient to devote much time to rare diseases. However in the American system, as long as those people provide a market, they will be serviced. While many people may be afflicted with a "Seinfeld," we should not simply ignore those that are afflicted with a "Farscape," yet this is precisely what happens under the foreign system.

P.J. O’Rourke was recently on "Real Time" with Bill Maher. He was arguing with Cornell West about drug companies, and Cornell got off on a long rant about how drug companies squander resources by researching frivolous drugs. West asked:

Would you prefer drug companies that looked for more remedies for sexual impotence or a vaccine for AIDS?

To which O’Rourke responded:

It depends on if I had AIDS.

This is the beauty of the American system. In the foreign system, a disease is deemed to be important by researchers and politicians. In the American system, a disease is deemed to be important by the people suffering from the disease.

No health care system is perfect, but it is worth remembering that we get what we pay for. In countries with centralized health care, everyone does get to watch TV, but the set is stuck on "Full House." In America you still get "Full House," but for a little more you can get "The Sopranos," and "The Sopranos" is worth every penny.

7 Comments:

  • So do 43 million Americans not have a TV?

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 12:11 AM  

  • Well, no, which should tell you all that you need to know about how people actually feel about health care.

    But you're also comparing apples to oranges. There are not 43 million people in this country without health care, there are 43 million people without health insurance. THese are two vastly different things. As I've said before, we would have better health care if we had virtually no insurance (other than catastrophic). Plus I'm talking about drug companies here, not insurance. And, thanks to an incredibly expensive piece of Corporate welfare, very few people are now without drug coverage.

    I view health care as any other good. If people want it, they can buy it. I think the biggest problem is that most people do not view it that way, they view it as a right, and because of that fact, they do not plan accordingly for their own health. I also think that this mentality contributes to the general unhealthy attitude in the US, after all, someone else will take care of it for you.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 11:36 AM  

  • " There are not 43 million people in this country without health care, there are 43 million people without health insurance."

    So why don't we offer them a "basic broadcast" package. If you want cable you can still buy it.

    "And, thanks to an incredibly expensive piece of Corporate welfare, very few people are now without drug coverage."

    Yes, and thanks to large amounts the drug companies spend on lobbying and campaigns, medicare cannot use its size to negotiate bulk deals on drugs. This was a Republican addition to the plan.

    "I view health care as any other good. If people want it, they can buy it. I think the biggest problem is that most people do not view it that way, they view it as a right, and because of that fact, they do not plan accordingly for their own health"

    What if you can't buy it? What if to cut costs your company doesn't offer health insurance? To whom do you turn?

    " I also think that this mentality contributes to the general unhealthy attitude in the US, after all, someone else will take care of it for you"

    If fast food was illegal, health insurance would be cheaper.

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 1:48 PM  

  • If leaving your house, or better yet, your plastic bubble, was illegal health insurance would be cheaper too but life would suck. Passing a law against fast food is not the way to get people to eat right or live right. Creating a system in which people are held accountable for their choices is. The government pays for gastrick bypass surgery for chrisake. Because Medicare does, so does the insurance company I work for. Do you think that only the premiums for the people that eat a large, thick crust, peperoni and mushroom and snicker bar and spare tire pizza for dinner go up? Nope, mine did too and I'm one of the top 20 million or so healthiest people on earth. Your health should be something you contemplate when you eat a meal or drive your car or snort a line or sleep with a hooker.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 2:42 PM  

  • It wasn't a statement made to be taken seriously.

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 1:04 AM  

  • "What if you can't buy it? What if to cut costs your company doesn't offer health insurance? To whom do you turn?"

    I don't know if this is true in every state, but in AZ and CA -the states I reside in- it's illegal to be refused service at a hospital if you can't afford a proceedure... Also you forget about the county system and free clinic system, there are also tons of NPO's and churches who help people who can't afford insurance...

    Or think of this, how many people die in Canada because of lack of care? How many proceedures does Canada refuse to offer?... This is near unheard of in America, where we offer amazingly risky proceedures to illegal imigrants in the name of Hypocratic Oath.

    While 10's of thousands of Americans go to Canada to get drugs, 10's of thousands of Canadians come to America to get medical proceedures, yet you never hear of Americans traveling to Canada for proceedures.

    It's a complex issue with no utopian solution. But I think we have the best system in the world.

    By Blogger J-Deal, at 8:40 PM  

  • "I don't know if this is true in every state, but in AZ and CA -the states I reside in- it's illegal to be refused service at a hospital if you can't afford a proceedure... Also you forget about the county system and free clinic system, there are also tons of NPO's and churches who help people who can't afford insurance..."

    I forgot nothing. We are talking access to perscription drugs; therefore, without health insurance, it's doubtful you have access to perscription drugs. Is it illegal for them to refuse to fill a perscription if you can't afford it?

    When you don't have health insurance you don't get preventive care (perscription drugs). When your disease gets caught later, it costs more to treat it and generally has less results. Those unnisured also put off getting care until they end up in the hospital unnecessarily; which again, drives up costs. Not only do those who are uninsured have unneccessary hospital stays, but when they do it costs more to treat them because there are no discounts to be negotiated by a major insurer.

    "It's a complex issue with no utopian solution."

    Let small business owners and individuals buy into the FEHBP with tax credits.

    I believe that Mr. Noonan is right. Health care would be cheaper if we all had virtually no insurance...or if we all did.

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 11:50 PM  

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