Seinfeld's last episode aired in May 1998, but there was a night two weeks ago when, at least in Washington, you had your choice of two episodes on basic TV at the same time.
Fifteen years after it officially ended, Seinfeld is still an entertainment colossus. Officially, as of Wednesday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis has decided to count that in its calculations of economic output.
On Wednesday morning, the BEA released its once-every-five-years benchmark revisions to its gross domestic product measurement in its comprehensive revision of the national income and product accounts, or NIPA. And now the measurement includes a section called "intellectual-property products," which contains what the BEA refers to as "entertainment originals"—a move that allows some entertainment to be counted as a sort of investment.
But "entertainment originals" isn't just a catch-all for everything that comes across your screen of choice. How the BEA assesses television programs makes this clear. Dramas and "situational comedies" fit their criteria for art that has ownership rights, is long-lived, and is used repeatedly in production. Something like a Heat-Spurs NBA playoff game doesn't. Nor would an episode of Days of Our Lives, or World News Tonight.
On the other hand, the BEA does include all motion pictures and musical recordings in investment. So, congratulations Ke$ha and Spring Breakers: You've made it into the GDP. The calculations also include products such as greeting cards and stock photography—the kind of stuff that can wind up being used over and over in production, says the BEA's Brent Moulton. But, like all assets, the actual value of something like a Carly Rae Jepsen song or a JJ Abrams movie is likely to depreciate over time, sometimes not much time at all.
Many of these forms of entertainment were already included in GDP in some form. The cost of a book or movie ticket was always in there, says Moulton. The new category is less about the physical, and more about the actual investment value of the entertainment over time. The process and calculations involved are explained in a paper from two BEA employees.
The latest revisions to the calculation of GDP are "all about relevance," said Steve Landefeld, the bureau's director. But he was clear to say that it wasn't "rewriting economic history."
And rewrite economic history it did not. Like the result of every episode of Seinfeld, the inclusion of entertainment isn't earth-shattering. Entertainment originals contributed about $74.3 billion to GDP in 2012, but the BEA is cautious about banking purely on their dollar figures. In percentage terms, that rounds out to a contribution of about zero percent of the total GDP for 2012 of about $16.2 trillion.
It's definitely not nothing, though. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, intellectual-property products—which now also include software and R&D—took off during the Internet boom in 1997, only to drop off by the 2001 bust. And we're still talking about billions of dollars added to the economy. But, as exciting as it may sound to start including entertainment as investment in GDP, the U.S. economy is just so massive that it barely moves the needle.