Equations of Everyday Life#3–Media Attention Span (Part Two: The Big Bust Theory)

According to my calculations [the universe] didn’t start with a “Big Bang” at all—it was more of “Phhbwt.”–Dilbert (Scott Adams)

This kind of bust? Well...maybe....

This kind of bust? Well…maybe….

In the stirring first episode of this equation, we saw how the attention paid by the media to inane celebrity stories erodes naturally over time through a process I dubbed The Media-illogical Constant.   But like many scientific theories, it is more complicated than it appears on paper.     It seems that this equation works well in a comparative media vacuum, free from the interference of new, bigger and even more outrageous celebrity stories. And though a story may also, in the absence of said later distraction,  sustain itself through the generation of new angles, it can still disappear in an instant.  When a  bigger celebrity story comes along and wipes clean the public attention-span slate, the previous prime meme is sucked into a media black hole.  It succumbs to The Big Bust Theory. I may not be able to quantify this occurrence; but I can certainly give a primordial example.

It  was 1994 and  two key dates in that year represent the ground zero points for the archetypal media big bust.

The Tonya Harding Fiasco

On January 6, 1994 a man named Shane Stant swung a lead pipe at figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee, causing sufficient injury to Kerrigan that she was forced to withdraw from the US championships.  In and of itself, this would have kept the cable news and sports channels going for weeks on end, but it was only the beginning.   Within a few days, the dastardly deed was traced back to associates of one Tonya Harding, who just happened to be Kerrigan’s main rival at the competition.  The frenzy was on. All throughout the spring and summer the story took more twists and turns than a Dickens novel.  (You can read the entire timeline here).  The name Tonya Harding was on every front page and every evening news lead.  On and on into the the spring and early summer, it reached the point that many–yours truly included–wished she and her story would just go away.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Big Bust: June 17 1994

oj-simpson-mshot-700217Just when you thought there would be no end to the Harding nonsense–no “return to normalcy” to quote another famous American named Harding–the story imploded.  On  June 17, 1994 cable news channels broadcast, live and in living color,  an event so momentous that it interrupted the broadcast of the NBA finals.  It was the pursuit by the LAPD of O.J. Simpson. (Case timeline here.)

Poof. The Tonya Harding story was gone from the front pages and evening news leads, never to return to such prominence again.

As for trying to create and algorithm that describes this phenomenon, it has so far escaped me.  In the same manner that the laws of physics seem to break down in the singularity at the center of a black hole, all measures of media (and public) vacuity in the face of these kinds of events defy calculation.  The equations yield infinities.  If you have any ideas, feel free to post them here.  But have no fear, this scenario has given me yet another idea.  It’s clear that two of the biggest media attractors going are inane celebrity antics and sensational crimes.  When the two combine, as they did in both the OJ Simpson and Tonya Harding cases, the effect just screams for its own equation…and this might ultimately yield the mathematical solution to The Big Bust Theory.


  1. so true

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