Clayton Childress

The Media Industry: Causes and Consequences of Risk Aversion

A lecture by Prof. Clayton Childress

By Sameena Ali
Photos by Students of Sociology

Professor Clayton Childress of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Sociology was the first to take part in the monthly Sociology Mini-Lecture Series. The event took place on Monday January 27th 2014 from 4-6PM at the MW Atrium. Sociology students coming from different years of study attended the event, organized by the Students of Sociology. Professor Childress split up his lecture into three distinct categories: (a) what I like to teach (2) outline of research and papers under review for publication and (c) the relation between teaching and research.

Early in his presentation, Professor Childress outlined the four aspects necessary to understand the media industry from a sociological standpoint. These consist of two rules – (a) all hits are flukes and (b) hits really matter – and two results – (a) caution is king and (b) status equals quality.  All hits are flukes simply outlines that hits are unpredictable; it’s normal for them to come out of nowhere. Professor Childress exemplifies this through the examination recent movies such as The Internship, After Earth, and The Lone Ranger, which were all supposed to be hits, but actually turned out to be complete flops. World War Z, on the other hand, was supposed to be a flop but ended up being a total hit. Through such examples, Professor Childress proves that within the media industry, it’s entirely impossible and unpredictable to know in advance what’s going to be a success.  Furthermore, across all media industries, about 90% of products released in the market lose money. Thus, Professor Childress illustrates the ways in which successful hits really matter as they pay for all things that flop. Hits drive everything else; but remember, all hits are flukes!

Professor Childress states that the dependence on hits is getting even worse than it was before. This is a serious problem. Staying in business or not is now highly dependent on hits, but it’s impossible to predict what’s going to be a hit to begin with. Living in a world that’s totally dependent on hits without being able to predict or control them results in living a life full of caution. As a result, those working in the media industry look at what has already worked in the past as a means to ‘play it safe’. People are very conservative in their decisions not because they’re uncreative, but because they’re in a really insecure position.  Professor Childress also states that quality is totally subjective. There is no official measure of how good something is, it’s all based on taste. So if you can’t predict quality and you can’t predict hits; status and fame is what comes to matter the most. Thus, status is the marker of quality.

Professor Childress studies the book publishing industry and is fascinated by the ways in which people make decisions in the book industry. One aspect that really drives and inspires his research is how individuals in the media industry make decisions about what to do if they have absolutely no idea of what the outcomes of their decisions will be.  In relation to this, another aspect that inspires his research is how inequality gets produced through individuals making decisions under conditions of uncertainty. He is currently working on several different papers that focus on distinct aspects of book publishing agencies; such as the booker prize for fiction, regionalism and book publishing, and the social organization of meaning. Professor Childress’s sociological approach to art and literature gives us a broader understanding of the media industry – not only focusing on the object in question, but also focusing on the frame around it.