I am not a fan of “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars,” but these shows are examples of one form of upward mobility that our economy still permits: Thanks to the reach of the mass media, talented people can become superstars. Over time, people in an expanding range of occupations—not just singers and dancers—will achieve superstardom.
This phenomenon was described as long ago as 1981, when the economist Sherwin Rosen published “The Economics of Superstars” in The American Economic Review (PDF). As examples of fields ruled by superstars, Rosen cited comedy, classical music, and elementary economics textbooks. In all three cases, a large market existed for the service or good, but each market was (and still is) dominated by a small number of very-highly-paid providers.
Rosen noted, “Motion pictures, radio, television, phono reproduction equipment, and other changes in communication have decreased the real price of entertainment services, but have also increased the scope of each performer’s audience.” Nor is there any reason this phenomenon must be limited to performers. “Undoubtedly, secular changes in communications and transportation have expanded the potential market for all kinds of professional and information services, and allowed many of the top practitioners to operate at a national or even international scale.”
It used to be that a chef could serve only a few dozen people per night and therefore could aspire to only a middle-class lifestyle at best. Ever since Julia Child, however, several chefs with the ability to communicate effectively through the mass media have grown rich from television appearances, cookbook sales, and ownership of restaurant chains. Some highly telegenic clergy have also achieved great wealth and touched many lives by using their media savvy to reach beyond church walls.
One newly emerging group of superstars is teachers. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This is an occupation in which the work is essentially a performance. We all can remember teachers with outstanding performance styles, the teachers who kept us attentive and who succeeded in making the lessons memorable. Now the mass media are allowing teachers to take their skills to much bigger audiences than could fit into any classroom. In Germany, a self-taught Photoshop expert with a flamboyant teaching style has built an empire of DVDs, live online webinars, and downloadable courses for those who want to learn how to manipulate bitmapped images. This superstar instructor, who goes under the pseudonym Calvin Hollywood, says he earns as much as $16,000 per month.
Another superstar teacher is Salman Khan, a former hedge fund analyst who launched a teaching career by posting YouTube videos (such as this one) that explain how to do elementary math problems. Wealthy philanthropists noticed these videos and helped Khan establish the Khan Academy, an expanding collection of free online videos about math, several sciences, information technology, economics, and several humanities subjects.
One kind of teacher—fitness instructor—has a long history of media superstars, such as Jack LaLanne, Richard Simmons, and Jane Fonda (not to mention the granddaddy of them all, Charles Atlas).
Television news and talk shows are routes to stardom for a few professions. For example, every TV news operation spotlights a physician, such as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to explain medical developments and issues. Among lawyers, think of Nancy Grace. Talk shows have elevated the visibility of counselors of various sorts, turning them into self-help gurus who publish best-selling books.
But these media-leveraging workers, like the exercise workout leaders, are functioning essentially as teachers. The TV doctors, lawyers, and psychobabblers are not following the model of TV-chefs-turned-restaurateurs by opening HMOs, chains of legal practices, or storefront therapy centers—at least, not yet.