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The Entertainment Age

The Entertainment Age

Seven of the 20 largest companies in this year’s Fortune 500 are in the entertainment business. Another seven are health care companies. Most of the rest are in retail and banking, along with the carbon merchant, Exxon, and a professional stock trader, Berkshire Hathaway. It’s hard to get much meaning from this list until you compare it with the same list from 50 years ago.

Only one company in the 1971 Fortune list was in entertainment, CBS. There were no health care organizations in the list of our largest publicly traded companies, as that was not allowed before the HMO Act of 1973. Back then, the notion of having health care delivered by a public corporation would have struck Americans as barbaric, on the edge of insane.

The 1971 list included ten manufacturers, seven oil companies, two telephone companies and CBS. In half a century our economy shifted from manufacturing and oil to technology (briefly) before being enveloped by entertainment and health care.

More than a decade ago, walking through the headquarters of Dominos Pizza I was struck by the tagline I saw posted everywhere, “A tech company that delivers pizzas.” Across the years that followed it was an attitude I saw repeated in almost every successful organization I visited. In the past decade, every company was a tech company whether they realized it or not. Regardless what business you thought you were in, your fortunes rose or fell on your mastery of information technology and data. A new era is dawning in which every company is an entertainment company whether they realize it or not.

We could quibble over which of these seven entertainment companies in the ’21 Forbes list, Walmart, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google), AT&T, Microsoft and Verizon truly belong in this category, but none of them would disagree. Alphabet has been operating on a media model from its earliest days. YouTube is its most promising unit. Microsoft and Walmart are moving as fast as they can to gobble up media properties and stake their claim to consumer attention. Apple still makes things, but their future is AppleTV and its associated media and entertainment units. Entertainment is the future of business.

Why is entertainment so important? Partly because competition for human attention has grown more intense. It’s not unreasonable to see in the rise of the entertainment industry the first glimpses of Keynes’ predicted “Leisure Society.” A sizable minority of people in the world’s developed economies are already living in a world where entertainment is ample, though leisure time is still much less than Keynes hoped. That minority is already enough to make entertainment the driver behind America’s most lucrative companies, and a force that every company has to consider in its day to day operations.

However, there’s more at work here than just lots of people with lots of free time. Entertainment is permeating everything, even time that isn’t free. You’ll often hear people say that “data is the new oil” without them mentioning where that new oil comes from. Leaders in the data age are harvesting it at the source, and the source is people giving their attention and engagement in one form or another to a technological interface. Some companies, like Tesla, are harvesting data by delivering something arguably non-entertaining like the functional need for transportation. Though not even Tesla could succeed in this venture without delivering a product long on entertainment value. Engagement feeds pipelines of data as demonstrated in the business models of YouTube, Amazon, and Walmart. Winners in the battle for data will be the masters of entertainment.

When your kid wants to go to art school or get a theater degree, congratulate them on their shrewd business sense. Every company is going to need tons of people with an entertainment or aesthetic sense to keep pace with the life or death demand for precious consumer attention. That MFA might be the new MBA.


  1. So Chris, are you planning on hitting the output on your blog that you once did, or are you more than a little spent after your multi-part opus, which would be better presented as a book?

    There are numerous things happening out there that you could be tackling. One pressing question I have is will the mounting Covid deaths among the unvaccinated death cult counter the vote suppression laws being enacted in various swing states, like Arizona, or supposedly Georgia? Will Darwinism end up being more effective at saving the U.S. from tyranny than the virtually non-existent efforts of the loser party?

  2. Sorry Chris. That does not cut it. Smart people in general take STEM programs. Sure, there are the exceptions to the rule, as we see with the graduates of places like Julliard. But bottom line, smart people can excel at any project, regardless of their background.

    I have a feeling that Google and Amazon and whatever else media conglomerate you choose will continue to look over resumes of tech and math grads long before they start looking at someone who has a a theatre degree.

    1. These days I work for a company using AI algorithms to manage cloud security. The CFO was an English Lit major. The CEO, PolSci. This is not remarkable at all.

      A brief rollcall of degrees held by the millionaire tech workers I’ve known across my career: theater (many times over), theology (at least two I know of), art history (the best computer sec engineer I’ve ever worked with), psychology, history, archeology and “liberal arts.” An arts degree may not deliver the immediate on-ramp into a starter-career that can come from STEM, but for those find their first hand-hold on a career, those degrees deliver a powerful leg up across their work life.

      And one trend I’ve started to notice, again at the level of anecdote, is the surprising uptick in well-paid employment for arts majors *in their fields* coming out of college. Nieces, nephews, children of friends etc finishing with degrees in theater, music, art, fashion etc not just finding jobs out of school, but getting recruited for jobs with pay that really surprises me while still in school.

      Every company of any real size in the tech business has whole sections full of art and theater majors producing content, usually for marketing/ads or for internal communications, but increasingly they are being used to build user interfaces or help design products in ways that make them more entertaining. The focus on engagement is forcing companies to lock their engineers in another room while they let people with a better aesthetic sense and training design products to make them entertaining.

      These folks aren’t just being ‘given a chance’ in other fields, as often happened in my generation, they’re finding highly paid work in their fields. I’ve never seen anything like this.

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