Good Tidings from American TV?

The popularity of shows like CSI suggests a growing interest in science and tech. And that bodes well for the U.S. economy

By Michael Mandel

Looking at the most-watched TV shows, one might be forgiven for thinking the legal and criminal justice system was the main activity of Americans. According to Nielsen Media Research, 8 of the top 10 prime-time broadcast programs in the first week of August were police-type dramas, led by CSI, Without a Trace, CSI: Miami, and NCIS.

This last one highlights the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, "a team of special agents whose mission is to investigate any crime that has a shred of evidence connected to Navy and Marine Corps personnel," according to the show's official Web site. These shows are popular, in part, because they've got plenty of lawyers, cops, and victims, of course, killed off in all sorts of imaginative ways.


  But the real heroes aren't lawyers. They're the investigators who use forensic science, information technology, and psychology to solve crimes, find missing persons, and uncover buried secrets. The focus is on analyzing DNA, measuring blood splatters, and breaking encrypted e-mails.

These shows don't glorify verbal adroitness or tricky legal maneuvers. Instead, the person with the best understanding of the technology and the science and the ability to put those into practice wins.

The guilty are arrested, the innocent set free, and the value of scientific reasoning is demonstrated once more. Knowledge is the key to success.


  Given the level of concern about the ability of the U.S. to compete with China, India, and other fast-developing countries, it's not a bad thing for millions of Americans to be exposed to this message on a nightly basis. After all, science and technological skills are the foundation of future prosperity in a world of intense global competition (see BW, 8/22-29/05, "China and India").

What's more, the widespread viewership of these shows suggests that Americans are intensely interested in science and technology, far more than they're often given credit for.

Surprisingly, the shows are also a good reflection of what's happening in the U.S. economy. Despite all the worries about a legal system run amok, the economic importance of lawyers has barely increased since 1990. And despite the tech bust, engineers and scientists have taken an increasingly prominent role.


  The numbers are very clear. In 1990, the legal-services industry employed 0.9% of all workers and accounted for 1.5% of GDP. Roughly 0.6% of workers identified themselves as lawyers. Today, these figures are almost identical to what they were in 1990.

Meanwhile, the tech- and science-minded have taken a bigger role. From 1990 to 2002, engineers, natural scientists, computer scientists, and systems analysts went from 2.7% of the workforce to 3.4%, a very substantial jump.

After 2002 the government changed the way it reports occupational data, making comparisons more difficult. My analysis of the latest numbers suggests, though, that the workforce's tech-science percentage may have risen a bit more since 2002.


  The educational data tell the same story about stagnation in the legal arena and advances in engineering and science. A new report from the National Science Foundation, released just this month, shows that graduate enrollments in engineering and science programs, not including psychology and social science, rose by 21% from 1990 to 2003. By comparison, enrollments in law schools rose by only 7% over the same stretch.

And it's not just immigrants who have been filling the classrooms. Since 2000, the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents enrolled in engineering and science programs has risen by almost 13%. These students won't graduate for years, but they do represent a potential source of critical creative talent.

In the not-too-recent past, Americans used to enjoy watching the slacker stars of Friends and Seinfeld. Now they follow the knowledgeable forensic scientists of CSI and the like. I don't know if TV viewing habits reflect the zeitgeist or influence it. But either way, the popularity of shows like NCIS and Without a Trace bodes well for the economy.

Mandel is chief economist for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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