TV is Porn

When choosing what TV show or film to watch, most of us probably think our main consideration is something other than how "hot" are the actors.  Not so, apparently

As an acting coach, I’m writing specifically about actors, who today are being cast more and more on their looks and less and less on their talent. … Where once casting seemed to strive for a combination of looks and talent, the equation now appears to have shifted radically toward the former, particularly with regard to film and television aimed at the youth market. Not long ago, I coached a young woman on a screen test for a television project. Afterward, the casting director told me that she had been "hands down the best actress of the bunch" but they had decided to go "another way." "Why?" I asked. "Because the girl we went with is a Victoria’s Secret model," he said, as if that were the most obvious explanation imaginable.

As in most industries, the main expense in giving shows is labor, and the most expensive laborers are actors. 

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  • Frank Hirsch

    IIRC this is universal: Even the success of an application as an engineer does, to some small degree, depend on looks (including outfit). And the effect works on both sexes.
    But I can see how that tendency may be driven to extremes in a TV setting, where (in addition to unconscios) there is conscious selection for looks. And conscious selection for cheap. Scrap professionality!

  • Sam B

    Just because the casting director’s main consideration is looks, it does not imply that the viewer’s main consideration is looks. The viewer’s main concern is quality of plot, characterisation, acting, etc – looks are relatively unimportant. You don’t need to make jokes about the casting couch to recognise that the casting director will put more importance on the looks of people who are right in front of him, than the viewer will on people who are on the other side of a TV screen. The casting director gets to have different preferences form the viewer because he doesn’t have to watch the programme.

    About half of what I watch is animé, which tends to feature young characters who look even younger than they are, and most of the other half is either satirical panel shows or cop dramas, both of which tend to star comedians and actors in their 40s or older. So I can say with confidence that my viewing choices aren’t influenced much by looks, or you’d have to draw some pretty weird conclusions.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Robin

    “TV is porn”

    A given, of course, an empty spectacle of transactional relationship, which is actually depressing humanity not entertaining it.

    But the real killer is that TV is *boring* porn.

  • http://grammdaemonium.blogspot.com/ Nat

    Isn’t this acting coach referring exclusively to live-action television/film? You’d think talent would be the deciding (sole?) factor in casting for animation or video games, where you never see–only hear–the actor. It seems like they’re ignoring a large part of the entertainment industry.

  • spindizzy

    Firstly, not to invalidate the point but a strong preference for attractiveness is not the same as a desire for pornography.

    At least in the UK, there is a strange dichotomy. On television, we see more and more fat and ugly people. This seems to be motivated by a desire for sympathetic figures, perhaps even a wish to feel superior. Certainly, there is a craze at the moment for “talent shows” filled with magnificently untalented people.

    Also, consider that the exposition of celebrities’ weight struggles, personal troubles and character flaws is the bread and butter of many women’s magazines.

    Besides that, there is a politically motivated desire to enforce an appreciation of “inner-beauty”, which is presumably why an obese candidate recently made it to the finals in the “Miss England” beauty pageant.

    However, these attitudes don’t seem to have influenced Hollywood. They certainly haven’t spread to Asia.

    Also, consider that porn stars are generally rather ugly (supply-side shortage?). The direction does not seem to enhance their attractiveness.

    There must be an economic substitution effect between physical attractiveness and a willingness to perform degrading acts. Perhaps men like movies because the actresses in the sex scenes are more desirable.

    Sorry, no coherent argument here. Just a grab-bag of observations.

  • josh

    with modern directing and editing techniques and the middle-brow material of most tv, acting talent above a certain competency threshold, just doesn’t matter that much. Comic acting, where the value of talent is still quite high, is done by uglier people.

  • Unknown

    Evidence that would indirectly support Robin, if found, would be that those who don’t watch TV, period, are also less likely to look at porn. This seems plausible on its face, and I know of at least one case of anecdotal evidence to this effect.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jamused/ Joshua Macy

    As others have pointed out, casting directors choosing based on looks doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the audience chooses on, and it’s easy to imagine principal-agent problems that give rise to that even when the audience would prefer it otherwise. And if that’s the case, if the casting director’s prejudices are widespread enough, it would be hard to demonstrate that audiences have different preferences based on the shows they actually watch since most of those have been filtered through the casting director’s preferences.

    I think that a good natural experiment in this is looking at the shows where the audience does get to directly choose the cast, such as American Idol. It seems pretty clear that even if fans mutter darkly (I know my wife does) about looks-but-less-talent going farther than they should on talent alone, ultimately the finalists are not who you would predict just given pictures of the contestants at the start of the season.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    “Evidence that would indirectly support Robin, if found, would be that those who don’t watch TV, period, are also less likely to look at porn.”

    Couldn’t you also argue that those who don’t watch TV should be more likely to look at porn? i.e. if the reason they don’t watch TV is because they are fulfilling their, uh, need for porn in a different way…

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    I started watching Buffy in its original run (which started 1997) after having watched essentially no TV for years, and it was quite obvious that the average age of the actresses on Buffy and other shows on the WB was much lower than the shows I had watched in the past. And it was quite obvious to me that the shows on the WB caused greater sexual thrills in me than almost all of the shows I had watched in the past.

    HDTV is only going to make the looks of the actresses on film and TV more important.

    Thanks to spindizzy for reporting on the situation in the UK. Most of the popular shows in the UK are produced by the BBC; are they not? Well, note that the BBC is part of the government, consequently less susceptible to short-term profit considerations, consequently more susceptible to political correctness than Hollywood is.

  • Jason B.
  • poke

    I don’t think this is true. I think looks have actually been much more important in the past than they are now. The paradoxical thing is that now we have a situation where Hollywood values neither looks nor talent. The main determinant of success in Hollywood these days appears to be who your parents are or whether you’re already famous for unrelated reasons. Photoshop and extensive use of body doubles ensures that we’re fooled by the prevailing mediocrity.

  • spindizzy

    > BBC is part of the government [..] consequently more susceptible to
    > political correctness than Hollywood is.

    Richard, nice observation. To qualify, though, about a quarter of BBC revenue comes from commercial services, so it is really a business venture with a large taxpayer subsidy. We get the worst of both worlds.

    Chinese Xinhua operates in a similar way but has a more equal balance of subsidy vs. commercial revenue, which allows greater journalistic integrity.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    Couldn’t you also argue that those who don’t watch TV should be more likely to look at porn?

    Yeah, shouldn’t our first thought when someone’s arguing that two goods are similar is that they’re substitutes?

    Network TV positioning itself as a (hilariously poor, as frelkins points out) substitute for pornography, rather than providing narrative or other experiences, would be an amusing explanation for the fact that it’s hemhorraging market share to HBO and the Internet, which either provide better porn or more interesting non-porn experiences.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Jason, oops, sloppy of me to forget that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    I too wonder about the point poke raises. Were things really better in the past? So often we see perceptions of the past colored by nostalgia and selective memories.

    I’m always hearing people say how pop music is no good today and was so much better when they were kids. But I’m older than most people saying that, so from my perspective, the music they remember so fondly was disappointing compared to what I heard growing up. But then I know that my parents thought my generation’s music was much worse than what they listened to.

    For some reason people love to believe that the world is getting worse. I’ll bet we were more optimistic about trends back in the olden days… 🙂

  • Nominull

    It’s hard for me to read that article when my eyes keep rolling.

  • constant

    For some reason people love to believe that the world is getting worse.

    Probably because it really is. Worse and better are subjective because preference is subjective. If you place greatest value on things that were at their height when you were young, which people tend to do, then, as measured by your set of preferences, the world gets progressively worse as time goes by.

  • http://www.moviezeal.com luke h.

    I think an important cause is being neglected (or ignored) here: channel surfing. Every single TV show has to be micromanaged to a ridiculous extent, in order to make sure that anyone flipping haphazardly through channels will be “grabbed” by what they see and want to stick around long enough to see a commercial or two. From the perspective of a bottom-line-obsessed network exec, hiring “hotter” actors and actresses is a no-brainer, given the need to compete with 500+ other channels that most people view for less than a second.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @poke

    “whether you’re already famous for unrelated reasons”

    That Tila Tequila (http://www.okmagazine.com/news/view/7070 for you old fogies) is heralded as the It Girl of the future, and that Paris Hilton remains a “star” is complete proof of your thesis, alas.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I think it’s a mistake to assume that director preferences provide a transparent window on viewer preferences. Somewhere on the Internet is a webpage which claims that many “big hits” have paid large amounts of money to a scriptwriter for a script with a real plot, used relatively unknown actors, ignored focus groups, and had some other characteristics I forget; the question being, why doesn’t Hollywood do this more often, since it is associated with making money?

    I suspect that Hollywood has biases of its own, leading to the regular production of movies which predictably suck. I suspect that someone who knew Hollywood in intimate detail could write a whole book about how much they malfunction.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    But isn’t Hollywood winner-take-all territory where established actors are the highest paid, and those tend to be older (and hence not as hot)?

    Lastly I’ll note that an actual porn star, Sibel Kekilli, did a rather good job of acting in Gegen die Wand/Duvara Karsi/Head On.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/OvercomingDumbness/ Overcoming Dumbness

    The Internet of today may become the TV of tomorrow because of the accelerating future.