Staff Picks

Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age

July 21, 2015


Michael Wolff's new book details why the television industry, despite presentation changes, still reigns supreme.

For sixty years, television, given massive generational, behavioral, and technological shifts, has managed to change... not so much (the world still sits in front of a television). And yet it is always, no matter its continued success, ubiquity, and cultural centrality, about to be swept away.

A few years back I was watching Game 1 of the 2011 Major League Baseball League Championship Series—the Brewers versus the *!&%$^# Cardinals—with my wife. As was customary, we both had our laptops, me with Twitter open, she with Facebook glaring back at her. Twitter for me was a way to experience the game with a community that values advanced statistical analysis that also happens to be pretty hilarious. My wife prefers Facebook, and would go back-and-forth with her brother and sister-in-law and most of her fellow Milwaukee Facebook travelers. In essence, we were sharing a live television experience with tens and hundreds of people, all through newish technologies and communication platforms.

At this very time in recent history, seemingly every media source, print or online, was chock full of prognostications of the digital revolution slowly but surely finishing off its takeover of traditional media by finally toppling television. These predictions were not new, but it seemed to me at the time they had reached their apex.

Shortly after Twitter and Facebook erupted following an improbable home run from one of the worst everyday players in baseball history—Yuni Betancourt—and I couldn't help but notice something: digital and social platforms were not destroying television; they were feeding it. They were offering me and my wife some semblance of a long-since-dismantled monocultural experience akin to what our grandparents experienced praying to The Ed Sullivan show every week. Four years later, this shared cultural experience is ubiquitous. The Mad Men finale, Super Bowl, Grammys, and most recently the Women's World Cup—fundamental television experiences—all benefited from millions of people simultaneously tweeting while watching. What's more, these very digital and social platforms are not only feeding television, they are becoming television—not the physical TV that sits in our living rooms, but the television industry and the experience of watching its product, regardless of how we're watching its product.

These experiences, and this reversion back to television fundamentals by digital media, is at the heart of Michael Wolff's new book, Television Is the New Television.  

For consumers, the digital promise was the democratization of information. This promise proved mostly true, for better or for worse (and there is a lot of worse mixed in with the better—see: Reddit). No monolith controlled information anymore, primarily because reader behavior evolved with technological capacity—we have news at our fingertips 24 hours a day, so why would we subscribe to a newspaper?  

The promise for business, while not quite an unmitigated disaster, resulted in a fractured ecosystem driven by dog-and-pony tricks and tactics based on algorithms that change at the whim of traffic distributors—the only way to sell advertising is to generate traffic; the only way to generate traffic is to game systems. And because gaming systems is not a static skill, nobody owns their audience. Audiences arrive at websites not because they are destinations but because Netscape or Yahoo or Google or Facebook or Twitter get them there. Web traffic is beholden to these traffic distributors and websites can't sell their audience because, in reality, no website really has an audience... not anymore, at least. Furthermore, because news and information is digested almost by happenstance by readers with increasingly divided attention, the content, what was once king, is becoming even by the most reputable media sources continuously watered down to digestible, quickly-consumed bites, and bytes.

And yet what it does, in some larger and ironic way, is to further define the dual advertising markets: the downscale market, of commoditized digital audiences ... and an upscale, luxury, exclusive television market. The former is bought largely as a pricing function—and with downward price pressure in an ever-expanding market. The latter is a product of limited supply with ever-rising prices.

Pretty ironic, huh? For two decades the image of a downscale market consumer was the couch potato lazily absorbing the glean of a television screen. Now, because the industry of television is widely considered to be in another golden age, audiences are tuning in for critical, challenging, artful narratives, all while digital struggles mightily to even understand narrative—and/or they wrongly and persistently underestimate narrative's power—much less how to monetize it.

Michael Wolff details in great depth decades of maneuvering, deals, regulation, and pitfalls that have led to this moment in television dominance. He also details the failings of digital media and how and why they collectively find themselves trying to push their non-television platforms into television-like entities.

Facebook has admitted that they need to become video-heavy—they need to act more like television—in the next five years in order to remain relevant. Yahoo is already trying (trying being the key word). Every marketer for every large digital media entity is pressuring editorial teams to produce more and more video content. Google/YouTube, already a platform with TV-like (the physical TV) properties, knows it has to act less like a pot for amateur video soup, more like a destination for quality, narrative, television-like video, whether that happens through premium original or licensed content (currently more of the latter, much like the old-model syndication deals) in order to achieve necessary revenue growth. Netflix and Hulu are television, and their revenue streams, while different from one another, still rely on models that have existed for decades. They're simply delivered differently. Amazon branched out from not making money on selling products to not making money making television, but television at least gives them upward revenue potential (not that they're hurting).

One would be hard-pressed to find, in the great scheme of media executives and chief marketing officers and media buyers, someone who could ably articulate the particular value of an imaginative moment or mood or relationship or leave-taking from everyday life. But that is ultimately what advertisers are buying, that quality of attention and of identification, and what audiences are paying for, a plot worth following, characters worth knowing, a world worth being part of.

Advertising is not the be-all, end-all of building, and more importantly sustaining, a viable modern media company; Netflix proves this. But Netflix is not only the exception that proves the rule, they are further example that old models still reign supreme—purchasing licensed content in order to charge subscriber fees is a lot like cable television. And if a company can't figure out advertising or licensing, or a combination of the two, that company can expect someone else to steal away their traffic in a few short years because they don't possess what is highlighted by the above quote—worth.  

Right now, the money is still in television because television entities, both traditional and modern, are where the audiences are. Put another, better way, television entities are currently the only media entities that can lay claim to some semblance of audience ownership. Until that changes, television is, and will remain, the new television.

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