Why is the Motley Fool hyping Netflix?

October 9, 2013
"House of Cards" actor Kevin Spacey arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
“House of Cards” actor Kevin Spacey arrives at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Joseph Delaney slams the investment site Motley Fool:

As mentioned in a previous post, those journalists who cover either media or business or both have completely invested in the narrative of Netflix as visionary game changer. As a result they are compelled to put a positive spin on even the worst news such as [September’s] Emmy awards.

I [Delaney] had assumed it was inevitable that Motley Fool would join in. I had not realized, however, that they would actually join twice in the space of as many days, or that their efforts would be so, well, pathetic. . . .

In “Netflix Just Took Another Step Closer to Becoming HBO,” Tim Beyers makes a full bore run at painting defeat as victory, favorably comparing House of Cards’ Emmy performance to that of The Sopranos. Doing so requires grouping basically meaningless Creative Arts Emmys with the majors, underplaying the relatively low prestige of the directing Emmy and completely ignoring the fact that, based on reputation alone, David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, and The Social Network) was always the favorite to win this category just as Martin Scorsese had been the favorite two years ago.

Okay, those are the details. But what’s going on? What does the Motley Fool get out of it (beyond living up to their reputation as fools, I suppose)? Delaney continues:

One of Motley Fool’s favorite strategies is to pick a hot company like Netflix or Disney and relentlessly talk it up. Unlike the traditional pump-and-dump, the goal isn’t to drive up that individual stock (it’s hard to move a Disney); instead what’s being pumped is the idea that you’re losing money by not being in. This frame of mind makes readers receptive to buying MF’s investment books and $199 newsletters . . .

That makes sense to me. They’re not selling the stock, they’re selling fear (or, perhaps, some mixture of greed and fear).

But I wonder if there’s something else going on. I don’t read The Motley Fool—actually, I’ve never looked at it before, but I did click on it just now when preparing this post—but I do subscribe to the New York Times. The Motley Fool’s motto is “to educate, amuse & enrich.” The Times is not enriching me, but I do read it to be educated and amused. I wonder whether the Fool’s pushing of Netflix is part of the educate-and-amuse bit. Okay, the story is not very amusing and apparently not educational at all—but, from the reader’s perspective, what the Fool is providing with the Netflix story is an ongoing saga, a mini-soap-opera.

The best analogy might be the newspaper coverage of a sports team. Yeah, the Tigers are gonna go all the way this year, check out their new pitching staff, etc. These kinds of stories have their own internal logic and they can be pegged to local news. Thus, the Emmys can be spun as evidence for a pre-existing story where Netflix is a hero, just as the local newspaper can spin a hot streak by the third baseman as good news for the home team.

I suspect Delaney’s story of direct economic motivation has some truth, but I wonder whether what’s going on here is just following the basic rules of storytelling.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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