Monday, April 2, 2012

Help wanted: What, exactly, is "entertainment"??

What does it mean to be entertaining?  I realized last weekend that I don't really know. (Insert joke about clueless quants here.)  I mean, I know "entertaining" when I see it, but defining it in a way that's measurable is tough.

For example, I imagine that most people would agree that the Onion is usually more entertaining than C-SPAN.  But why?  What is it about the content that's different?

Here are a few more examples.  I imagine most people will agree with me on the Daily Show, Onion, and all the things in the less entertaining column. To my mind, on a scale from "not entertaining at all" to "very entertaining," Gawker, Fox News and MSNBC seem less entertaining than John Stuart, but a lot more entertaining than the New York Times.  That is, they're trying harder to grab and hold onto viewers' attention.  The use a lot of the same gimmicks.

More entertaining  Less entertaining
The Daily Show
The Onion
Fox News (?)

Foreign policy

All this matters because I'm trying to measure the difference between entertaining and non-entertaining content in political blogs.  For this kind of research, it's not enough to say "Blog X seems more entertaining to me than blog Y."  I need to measure entertainment, and show that other people can replicate my measurement (After all, repeated measurement is the starting point for all science.)

To get there, I've been trying to write a "codebook" (like a survey, but about text instead of opinions) to measure entertainment in blog posts and news coverage.  Here's what I've got so far.

Can you think of things to add?  I'd really appreciate your ideas and suggestions...

How well do these statements describe this article: very well, somewhat well, a little well, or not at all well?

Not at all A little Somewhat Very
This article is written to be entertaining.
This article is written in a serious tone.
This article includes jokes and/or other humor.
The tone of this article is sarcastic and/or ironic.
This article includes sexual references, imagery, or innuendo.
The writing in this article is engaging---it gets and holds the reader's attention.
The writing in this article is flat---it doesn't do much to hold the reader's attention.


  1. I think novelty/originality in content/delivery have a lot to do with entertainment. My brother addresses the similar question of "What is creativity?" in his book "Machinimenta," which is about the history of artificial intelligence, machine-art, and machine-creativity. Perhaps he's found some answers to your question already.

    1. Oh, and surprise is another way to say "novelty/originality." That usually comes up in scientific attempts to define what's humorous.

  2. I also think that shock value should be on your rubric. This is one of the reasons that Fox News or MSNBC might be considered mildly entertaining, because those moments when you think "who says stuff like that?" is entertaining.

  3. I like both of these ideas -- novelty/originality and shock value. I'll have to figure out how to put these into the codebook format...

  4. I think your representation of what is "entertaining" is somewhat narrow. Based on your list, it looks like shows/sites that are fun or lighthearted are more "entertaining" that those that are serious. I might be a minority, but I am actually entertained when I read a NYT article (i.e. it is not a chore that I have to do for work or school, just something that I enjoy).

    Also, based on your sentence "That is, they're trying harder to grab and hold onto viewers' attention." That sounds more like "engagement" (as in "drawing people in")which to me is slightly different than entertainment. You might be engaged in a cause/ issue, without being "entertained" (e.g. one might be strongly involved and engaged in the issue of abortion, but I doubt the same person would describe herself as entertained by the issue).

    Finally, I was just reading an article the other day on Techcrunch ("Defining The Television Experience In A Single Word") in which the author argue that viewing television is about one thing: Escape. To him, entertainment is a subset of escape. I don't know if I totally agree with him, but that is an interesting perspective.

    So what about this: imagine a Venn diagram with three sets: Entertainment, Engagement, and Escape. Maybe the shows/sites you labeled as "entertaining" in your list would be those that are at the intersection of two or three sets (e.g. the Daily Show talks a lot about politics - something people are engaged in - but in a fun way - so it's entertaining).

  5. @Alexis: Good points. You're definitely right that the definitions are complicated and overlapping. To my mind, that's why measurement is worthwhile -- and hard.

    My main reaction to is that you seem to have focused on the experience from the perspective of the reader, rather than the perspective of the writer. As you suggest with your NYT example, different people find different kinds of content "entertaining" or "enjoyable." A similar principle would apply to engagement and escape.

    I understand that perspective, but since I'm focusing on entertainment as a property of the text, I think is makes more sense to focus on the writer's perspective. There's only one writer, as opposed to many readers. In other words, I think it makes sense to focus strictly on the text, not how people might react to it.

    I know that's an odd way to approach the idea of entertainment, and I know the two perspectives can't be completely separated. But still, focusing on the text seems likely to be the only way to get reliable measurements.

    1. Abe, I understand that it would be nice to determine how entertaining something will be based on the content, but I still believe that "entertainment" is in the eye of the end receiver.

      To be able beforehand to determine how entertaining something is going to be to the readers/viewers/listeners is in my opinion nearly impossible. It would be the Holy Grail of the entertainment industry. Imagine for example being able to determine whether a movie is going to be a hit before it launches, just based on the scenario, actors, director, etc. (i.e. the "content"). We know the movie industry is trying a bunch of trick to increase the odes of the movie being successful (i.e. use well known actors, sequel/prequel, hero based on popular book or comic...). Still, there is no guarantee that a movie is going to be a hit.

      I probably didn't explain it clearly in my first post, but my main point is you cannot separate the content from the primary audience to which this content is intended. So an "entertaining" political blog will be entertaining on a different level than an "entertaining" reality show.

      Maybe one thing you might want to look into (sorry, I know this is getting long : ) is the Netflix prize. According to Wikipedia the data available to the contestants had only four variables (user, movie, date of grade, grade), yet Netflix own algorithm was pretty good at predicting how entertaining a movie would be to a given user (i.e. how many stars the user would give to the movie). I don't know what the team that won the contest did to improve on that algorithm (e.g. did their algorithm include variables to help define the "content" of each movie?) However that would be interesting to know.

    2. @Alexis - I completely agree that predicting entertainment value is a super-hard problem. But I don't need to solve it for this project. For my purposes, it's enough to distinguish news/blogs that are written with the intent to entertain, regardless of how the audience reacts.

      Maybe "entertainment" is the wrong word to use -- it seems to connote eye-of-the-beholder-ness in a way I don't really mean. Would "infotainment" be a better term? ( It's a word people use to lament the quality of news coverage because of pressure for ratings.

    3. Got it. Yes I understand your question better with the word infotainment, which to me relates more with the source's intent, rather than the audience's reaction.

      Still, it's a hard question to answer. Here are my two cents: instead of scanning the content of an article, what about a PageRank-like algorithm to determine how infotaining (sorry, horrible word)a blog post is. For example something that links to or is linked by The Onion would be a lot higher on the scale than something that links to or is linked to by Foreign Policy magazine.