Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about a scene from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Back to School.” He stars as Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire entrepreneur who, per the title, returns to finish his university education alongside his freshman son. On the first day of his intro to business course, Professor Philip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead) explains that they’ll spend the semester creating and running a fictional manufacturing company. “What’s the product?” asks the pragmatic Melon, who won’t let the point drop.
“Let’s just say they’re widgets,” snaps the professor.
“What’s a widget?” asks Melon.
“It’s a fictional product,” Barbay replies. “It doesn’t matter.”
At some point a few years back, an unholy union of like-minded tech bros, studio suits, media water-carriers and social media personalities settled on their own “widget,” a catchall phrase that would both encompass and minimize the various forms of entertainment they touch: “content.” And when news broke on Sunday night that the monthslong Writers Guild of America strike was coming to an end, Variety, the industry bible, gave this term its most skin-crawling deployment to date, noting that the W.G.A. strike had taken “a heavy toll across the content industry.”
“No, absolutely not,” tweeted the TV writer and comedian Mike Drucker. “We’re not calling it ‘the content industry’ now, you psychopaths.”
In fact, Variety itself had run, just a few days earlier, a pointed rebuke to the term from no less an authority than the Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson. “To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion,” she said at the Royal Television Society conference in Britain last week.
“It’s just a rude word for creative people,” she added. “I know there are students in the audience: You don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something.”
Thompson’s not only right about the implications of the phrasing. She’s right about the real-world impact of what is, make no mistake, a devaluing of the creative process. Those who defend its use will insist that we need some kind of catchall phrase for the things we watch, as previously crisp lines have blurred between movies and television, between home and theatrical exhibition and between legacy and social media.
But these paradigm shifts require more clarity in our language, not less. A phrase like “streaming movie” or “theatrical release” or “documentary podcast” communicates what, where and why with far more precision than gibberish like “content,” and if you want to put everything under one tent, “entertainment” is right there. But studio and streaming executives, who are perhaps the primary users and abusers of the term, love to talk about “content” because it’s so wildly diminutive. It’s a quick and easy way to minimize what writers, directors and actors do, to act as though entertainment (or, dare I say it, art) is simply churned out — and could be churned out by anyone, sentient or not. It’s just content, it’s just widgets, it’s all grist for the mill. Talking about “entertainment” is dangerous because it takes talent to entertain; no such demands are made of “content,” and the industry’s increasing interest in the possibilities of writing via artificial intelligence (one of the sticking points of the writers’ strike) makes that crystal clear.
Perhaps the finest example of this school of thought can be seen at Warner Bros. Discovery, where David Zaslav ascended to the throne of chief executive by overseeing the Discovery Channel’s transition from nature documentaries to reality swill. The “content”-ization of that conglomerate’s holdings is the only reasonable explanation for the decision to rename HBO Max as simply Max — removing the prestigious legacy media brand that most clearheaded, marginally intelligent people would presume to be an asset. It lost 1.8 million subscribers in the process, but that’s merely the battle; it won the war, because when you visit Max now, the front-page carousel is a combination of scripted series, HBO documentaries, true crime and reality competition shows. It’s all on equal footing; it’s all content. But “Casablanca,” “Succession” and “Dr. Pimple Popper” are not the same thing — and the programmers of a service that pretends otherwise are abdicating their responsibility as curators.
The service also showed its hand with the baffling decision (later corrected, following threats from the writers’ and directors’ unions) to lump together all of a production’s writers, producers and directors under the single classification of “creators” — terminology that similarly attempts to simplify and minimize the hard work of writing and directing, while simultaneously elevating the wildly divergent efforts of social media personalities and Instagram influencers who will breathlessly brand themselves “content creators.” You’ll hear tech “geniuses” and “innovative” chief executives referring to showrunners and filmmakers with the same terminology, and it’s nonsensical. Martin Scorsese and Logan Paul are not in the same line of work. In practical terms, “content creator” neatly accomplishes two things at once: It lets people who make garbage think they’re making art, and tells people who make art that they’re making garbage.
Perhaps this is all just semantics, an old man yelling at clouds about a shift in thinking and classification. But the ubiquity of “content” is no organic evolution; this is more complicated, and frankly more depressing, than that. Language matters. The way we talk about things affects how we think and feel about them. So when journalists regurgitate purposefully reductive language, and when their viewers and readers consume and parrot it, they’re not adopting some zippy buzzword. They’re doing the bidding of people in power, and diminishing the work that they claim to love.