Assemble any group of entertainment-industry executives — doesn’t matter who or how many — and eventually the conversation turns to the Internet.
The value of any entertainment product — television show, rerun, feature film, popular song — is directly related to its distribution. The entertainment business is all about scarcity: Control the exhibition and availability of a product, and you can make a lot of money. For the past century (almost), that’s pretty much how Hollywood got so rich: It told the audience when to show up to the theater to watch a popular movie, when to sit on the sofa to watch a hot TV show, and exactly how to listen to the popular music of the day.
The Internet has changed all that. The stately old gatekeepers of entertainment now compete with a torrent of media cascading in from all directions. Facebook newsfeeds, Tweets, YouTube videos, digital MP3 downloads — all of these disruptive technologies have flooded the marketplace like cheap Rolex knockoffs from China. Since it all appears on the same screen, it’s getting hard to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff.
Eventually, of course — and this is what that group of Hollywood executives are afraid of — it’ll all just end up as stuff, endless floods of widely distributed, plentifully lousy content, in which Twitter messages (“Just ate grt burrito! Please RT!”) and Facebook updates (“Awesome afternoon with BFF!”) and cat videos on YouTube all slosh around the muck pit of our fractured attention with Anna Karenina, Mad Men, The Man Who Would Be King, and, ultimately, articles in National Review.
Bad money drives out the good, but before it does, there’s this queasy, sickly period when you’re aware that it’s all sliding south, but are powerless to stop it.
Which brings us to the lurid decline of television star Charlie Sheen, who has managed to embody in human form the collapse of the Hollywood business model.
Charlie Sheen — and I won’t rehash every jot and tittle of his drug-fueled crash (you’re welcome, by the way) because we’ve all heard it a million times — used to make an enormous amount of money on broadcast television as the star of the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men. Then, after months of tangles with his ex-wives, the law, drugs, alcohol, sanity, health, more drugs, several adult-film stars, and his employer, he found himself fired from his TV series. For a week or so, he was featured on every schlock-heavy television “celebrity” news show — the usual names: the Today show, Piers Morgan on CNN (and how long are we going to be able to write that?), ABC News.
But the key to maintaining big-media interest — and the key to maintaining the big-media business model itself — is managing scarcity. You’ve got to limit the flow of content, something that escaped Sheen during his week-long interview blitz. He gave “exclusive” interviews to pretty much anyone who asked. By midweek, it was unclear what, exactly, Charlie Sheen thought “exclusive” meant. News organizations — and I know I’m being sweetly generous with that term — have a pretty solid idea of what an “exclusive” is: It’s at least a 24-hour window in which, if you wanted to hear from Charlie Sheen, you had to go to them. That’s how they make their money.
And so, faced with a raging Sheen-exclusive inflation, the big-media caravan moved on to other things — budget squabbles, Japan, college basketball — and Sheen was left, like the rest of us, to make his own kind of fame.
Which he did, almost instantly, by quickly signing up for a Twitter account — he’s @charliesheen, if you’re honestly interested — and appearing in a streaming webcast on Ustream.tv. At some point in that transition, he ceased to be a real star — someone who appears on television shows — and became, instead, an Internet star — someone who appears in a dirty T-shirt on streaming video, muttering oddly and begging for attention.
“That’s meth face,” a friend of mine said, when he saw Charlie Sheen’s manic, jittery appearance on his streaming webcast. My friend has deep unsought-after knowledge about the ravages of drug addiction, and he knows what he’s talking about. The sweaty face, the darting eyes, the sunken cheeks, the receding gumline, the rapidly aging appearance — it’s all right from the rock-bottom textbook. That, and the crazily upbeat taglines — “I’ve got tiger blood!” “I’m winning!” — are a sure sign of someone on the outs with life itself.
Sheen’s drugs of choice — he admits to smoking crack cocaine; my in-the-know pal insists that it’s crystal meth that has ravaged his once-good looks — are, let’s face it, pretty shabby. Keith Richards, the ghostly pale guitarist for the Rolling Stones, has lived a life just as hard, just as debauched, as Sheen. But Richards’s drug of choice was (or is; who knows with these people?) heroin. Opiates have many drawbacks — paper-thin skin; constipation; infection risk; cost — but they’re at the very least relaxing. You don’t see Keith Richards bouncing around on Ustream.tv like a rat in a coffee can, barking out unconnected words. He’s probably lounging in Montserrat, quietly anaesthetized, like the show-business aristocrat he is.
And yet, Charlie Sheen is compelling Internet theater. Less than a week after signing up for his Twitter account, Sheen sported over 2 million followers. His Ustream.tv webcast had, at various points, hundreds of thousands of viewers.
In other words, Charlie Sheen is the living embodiment of what everyone in Hollywood fears. Leaving aside, for a moment, the creepy prurience of his 2 million Twitter followers, or the death-watch quality of his Ustream.tv viewership, Sheen has taken his insanely valuable network-television scarcity — his take-home was something along the lines of $2 million per episode — and squandered it on freebie Web appearances, hourly Tweets, and low-rent antics. He makes Lindsay Lohan look like Princess Grace. He makes Snooki seem stately. Charlie Sheen has become the lowest kind of celebrity. He has become a reality-television star.
That’s what drugs will do to you, of course. But on another level, that’s also what unlimited bandwidth — the crystal meth of the media business — is doing to the old Hollywood business model. We are all moments away from cheap, knock-off stardom. Click around YouTube and you’ll be astonished at the number of people who regularly post videos of themselves. These are people you and I have never heard of, and yet there they are, talking into the camera, for millions of subscribers.
When labor gets this cheap — whether you’re a manufacturer of widgets facing Chinese sweatshops or a Hollywood mogul looking at YouTube impressions — you start to get nervous. Charlie Sheen’s awful, repellent descent is a nasty glimpse into the future of the entertainment business, where some of us are busily Tweeting and webcasting and Facebook-updating ourselves, and some of us are sitting on the sofa, trying to find something — anything — actually worth watching. In a way, Charlie Sheen is the lucky one. He probably won’t live to see it.