Farewell to the Ringling Brothers Circus

Brian Gongol

Now that word has gotten out about the permanent closure of the Ringling Brothers circus, prepare yourself for a wave of nostalgia.

Practically everyone has a memory of the circus -- it's been around for 146 years, after all -- and in a sense, it is becoming harder to find those common experiences.

For instance: There was a time when there was only one Disneyland. But then there was Disney World, and then EPCOT...and MGM, and Universal Studios, and so on. Where there was once a single, seminal experience (Disneyland, in Los Angeles), there are now dozens of similar, all-encompassing experiences, all over the world.

Even those experiences may soon find rivals as virtual reality experiences become so cheap (and yet so spectacular) that some families will abandon the long lines and hot sun altogether, and instead take the whole family to a VR center where everyone can have a personalized "day of a lifetime" and be home in time for dinner. (Don't kid yourself: Theme parks, including EPCOT, are already integrating attractions based on virtual reality. We're only a couple of years away from these becoming affordable to regional and even local theme parks.)

There are few things left for which we have truly universal experiences -- we don't have three broadcast television networks anymore; we have hundreds of live channels and uncountable options for viewing on-demand. We don't have just McDonald's and Burger King; we have everything from Panda Express to Chipotle to Subway in practically every town. Where once there were a handful of hotel chains, even the chains have subdivided themselves (there are 30 different brands under Marriott, 16 under Wyndham, and 12 under InterContinental. Even Coca-Cola now promotes the Freestyle machine, which produces scores of flavors on-demand.

Are we worse-off for the grand expansion in the number of choices? Absolutely not. In general, the more consumer choices we have, the happier each of us can individually be. That's pure utility maximization.

But it does mean that entertainment (and other consumer options) targeted at mass audiences are on borrowed time. It's hard to name an entertainment option that was intended to have greater mass appeal than the circus -- after all, the ringmaster welcomed all "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages!"

The closing of the circus is a moment for nostalgia...maybe a little wistfulness, too. But while the mass-appeal circus may be folding its tent, the pieces still live on -- if you want to see the acrobats, see Cirque du Soleil. The magicians? Check out Penn and Teller. There may be no more bearded ladies anyway, but Bodies makes a better freak-show, anyway.

So, it may be farewell to the Ringling Brothers circus, but that's only because it's been elbowed aside by the next generation of entertainment.