There is some fascinating economics in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (sorry, not online yet). The article “No Funny Business” explains that the rise of reality tv five years or so ago is just now starting to exert a powerful effect on sitcom syndication. How are the two connected?

Given that the six broadcasters have collectively launched one hit sitcom [Two and a Half Men] in the last five years, the syndication market – which feeds successful five- and six-year old sitcoms to cable networks and to local stations that use them to fill pre- and post-prime-time slots – is suffering from a severe case of malnourishment… [T]he prices of proven series have soared to ridiculous levels.

Friends is up to $4 M an episode.

Where does reality tv fit in?

The success of reality shows and procedural dramas has not filled the syndication void (in general, they don’t rate as highly in reruns) and has significantly curtailed comedy development. In the last seven years, the number of new sitcoms on the networks’ fall schedules has shrunk from 36 to 10. The most troublesome aspect of the comedy crisis is that even in the best-case scenario – if all 10 of the networks’ new comedies are resounding hits – the syndication market will continue hurting for five years until these shows reach the magical 100-episode mark that’s necessary for a successful syndication launch.

In practice, the main use of general equilibrium theory is to torture first-year graduate students with the hardest math they’ll never use again (unless they go on to teach it themselves!). But that’s a problem with the pedagogy, not the material.

The deep lesson of general equilibrium theory is that markets are inter-connected in countless subtle ways. If you throw a stone into the water of the market, it doesn’t ripple out in concentric circles. The ripples are many and irregular. Analyzing the effect of the reality craze of five years ago on syndicated sitcoms today is actually one of the easier connections to understand.