Why Do You Read Entertainment Supplements?

The newspaper represents the canonical form of media. This medium is devoid of the strangeness inherent in 24-hour TV1, and has been around long enough for its form to reach a state of equilibrium; a state that can be understood. Of all the pages in a newspaper, I want to talk about the entertainment pages. What is the point of the entertainment supplement that accompanies newspapers? These supplements often start with a headline in which an actor is promoting a movie. The key however is that the actor says something unrelated; or “reveals” a secret about their work or life so that the reader is first trapped into reading the article. Eventually, the reader will find out that they are promoting a movie. I did not know this for a while; when watching television shows where guests would come on the show as “judges,” I was not able to recognize immediately that the people who came on the show were there only when they were promoting something. Once I realized that actors go on TV shows for only that reason, the connections were much easier to draw. Whenever a new movie comes out, the people associated with the movie try to get as much footage as they possibly can. This is simply the way marketing works; a banal truth. Is this media blitz anything except marketing? Why do the media organizations become tools in this marketing? Why do people fall for this not immediately obvious marketing ploy, despite years of formulaic use? Those are the questions I am going to attempt to answer in this post.

Page 3 is A Waste of Time

Let’s start with the apparently easy question. Newspapers contain “Page 3”, the page that has a bunch of photographs of the parties that happened last night. Page 3 is useless for everyone who is not someone who wants to go to these parties or is trying to make a career as an actor. The information contained in these pages is mostly about who is hosting parties, why, and whom they invited. By looking at these lists, perhaps an aspiring actor can identify the people that they need to get in with to be cast in the next big-budget movie that comes along.

Entertainment Pages Contain Only Trivia

What about pages 1 and 2 of the entertainment supplement? Is there any information in these pages at all? In the most basic sense of the word, there absolutely is: Actors talk about the pranks that they played on other actors when they were on set; a newbie talks about their experience working with an experienced actor; an experienced actor talks about working with a reputed director; and so on. But this information is seldom being communicated for its own sake. It is being communicated as a ploy to sell the image of the speaker to the next person who is going to employ them. For example, the actor that talks about a director allowing them creative freedom with dialogues is expressing that the actor expects this freedom to act well. This piece of information matters only to someone who will be in a position to choose the actor for some role. For everyone else, it is just trivia.

(A non-trivia usage of this information also exists. This information, in some cases, might allow the viewer to assign value to the actor’s or the director’s skill and decide whether they trust them to deliver a good product in the future. However, I don’t believe that the information communicated in entertainment supplements can sway people much. By definition, this is information that is designed to paint the actor in a good light for a future producer or director. The information is never delivered along with the measured criticism that one would find in any good review; it comes only with a modest amount of self-criticism.)

By this logic, for someone who is not in the “film industry,” the entertainment supplement is simply a collection of trivia about people whose films (or other artworks) were released recently.

Is There Such a Thing as Useful Trivia?

There is a lot of trivia out there. The media industry is built around telling you about it. I think that trivia is mildly interesting in the party setting. It can keep the conversation going when you can talk about how some actor is famously down-to-earth. (Why shouldn’t they be down-to-earth?)

For me, trivia isn’t really “useful” information for its own sake. “General knowledge”, that set of facts which includes such diverse things as the name of the second person to walk on the Moon and the national flower of Vietnam, isn’t useful for its own sake either.2 Trivia is useless unless it is being used to do something, such as deciding whether or not you want to cast an actor who always has a prank up their sleeve in a historical drama. (You probably don’t, but what do I care? I will never be in that position anyway.)

When the actor/director talks about their craft and their practice of it, things get interesting and veer out of the “trivia” zone.

For example, here is a fact about Anthony Hopkins3: “Hopkins reads the script 200 times or so, ensuring that the dialogue is lodged in his brain.” If you have watched the TV series West World and you noticed something different about his acting compared to the other actors, perhaps this could be one reason why he is able to deliver in a way that other actors can’t.

Another example is trivia about a director’s choice4: Eric Heisserer, screenwriter who adapted the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang to the script for the movie Arrival (2016), told Chiang that he wanted to change the context of his story before adapting it, because he felt that Chiang’s framing of the main character’s dilemma (in the short story) was not convincing enough to engage a visual audience. This has huge ramifications on the final piece of art. I believe that this single change completely changed the movie adaptation from the short story: The message communicated in the movie is the exact opposite of what Chiang communicated in the short story.

Let’s assume that artists would love to keep talking about their craft. This might still not be interesting enough for the media industry to sell newspapers. How many newspapers can be sold on the above non-trivia facts? Compare your estimate to the number of newspapers you think can be sold when one actor claims that another actor plays a prank on all his colleagues which involves a bucket of water (or some other “prank-y” object.) My estimate is that the latter fact can sell manifold more papers. The entertainment supplement headlines write themselves when they are about the “atmosphere on set.”

This is the reason useless trivia often finds itself on the front page of entertainment supplements (and gossip sites or even serious news sites on the Internet.)

Buffoonery Disguised as “News”

Once people realize that they are being suckered into buying things by these salesmen disguised as artists and that they are being fed an endless series of unimportant and useless drivel, wouldn’t they simply stop buying newspapers? No. All of this buffoonery is disguised as “news,” and to not follow the news is sacrilege. After all, you want to be an informed citizen, don’t you?

The ridicule that someone is subjected to for not knowing the president of a country is not for the fainthearted. The news has replaced every other way to pass our time as the only thing that is worth our attention. Push notifications about the latest protests in Iran or the newly elected leader of a faraway country keep everyone hooked to their screens. I have felt this when I see real time stories unfold. It is hard to get yourself out of the situation where you feel like you have to know what is going to go down; even though you might not lose much by simply following up on a news digest in a few hours / days / weeks.

On the morning of February 24, 2022, I found myself in front of live news coverage from Al Jazeera on YouTube. The Russian invasion was about to begin in a few hours; however, the correspondent was walking around a Ukrainian town and talking about how people were surprisingly normal; how the atmosphere really felt like the “calm before the storm.”5 A knee jerk reaction is that this is preposterous; the citizens must not have been informed; they must have been watching state propaganda; some form of “I would not be this calm if I was in Ukraine”; etc, etc.

If I avoid that knee jerk reaction, then I see that this is the most likely situation in most places. If a war is about to start but no one knows that it certainly will, why would they change their behavior? It is the observer who is projecting their expectation onto these people. It is these people that we see on the screen who are actually living the experience the observer is watching from far away.

Here’s another question: Can this coverage be educational? Does this teach other people how to behave when their city might be invaded? No, I don’t think so. 7 months into the war, coverage of that first day of the war seems misguided and naive. Nothing useful could have been learned on that first day. Everything that was important was either far back in history (e.g. Russia started sanctions-proofing its economy in 2014; Germany was highly dependent on Russian natural gas) or about to come (e.g. Russia would turn off energy supplies to Germany; Ukraine would not share intelligence with its Western backers). All of these things are contained in history books and other kinds of outlets which focus on creating evergreen content, such as Vox or Vice. They provide a larger perspective; the perspective that one would find educational.

Haven’t Things Always Been Like This?

No, they haven’t. A century ago, things were not like this.

(I make this assertion with full knowledge of the human folly of thinking that the situation that we find ourselves in is completely novel and has never been dealt with before. I am probably making the same mistake here. People who were alive when printed books were getting exponentially cheaper or when literacy was increasing rapidly probably also felt that things were getting much worse than ever before in history. Indeed, one of the first effects of the printing press was in the spread of Protestanism which sparked many wars.)

Downton Abbey, a show based in the early 20th century, shows a doctor who is not confident about the latest treatment for one of his patients’ illness. This is unthinkable in today’s world of medicine, where doctors are expected to know everything in their field of expertise. Until the advent of cheap telegrams and local newspapers, which started printing national and international news, it was still possible to know only the news of the locality that one lived in.

These changes can happen fast because they are simple first-order effects of technological progress. And as Illing notes, technological advancements like the telegram, television, and the Internet changed our society fundamentally without a vote or the majority’s consent. Our belief that technological progress is inevitable is enough to cement these advancements into our way of life. An individual can merely adapt to this new way of life. (Case-in-point: All the recent talk about the metaverse obscures one question: Who wants the metaverse?)



I read a relevant quote before publishing this post in a related newsletter.

It is not just the fourth page of newspapers that is made up of advertisements. The whole body of the paper is a one big continuous and general advertisement.

– Original: Gabriel Tarde (a French sociologist); Quoted by Citton in Ecology of Attention; Quoted by Sacasas in The Pathologies of the Attention Economy

  1. I am going to re-read Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” soon and I plan to write more about what is so strange about the talking heads on TV later. 

  2. … except if you are a child. 

  3. Source: an interview 

  4. Source: A podcast that Arrival’s screenwriter appears on. 

  5. How can any respectable news station not use this phrase when talking about an upcoming invasion?