TV is dead? Author says there’s something wrong with that picture

Nowadays, there are more and more new media video options carpeting the web. But in his new book, “Television Is The New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media In the Digital Age,” Michael Wolff argues that the Internet is not actually destroying old media. William Brangham speaks to the author about why he thinks traditional media can still thrive in the digital age.

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    Finally tonight, the latest edition to our NewsHour Bookshelf.

    William Brangham talks to one prominent writer about his defense of television.


    The way we get our various media, our news, music, movies, books, and TV, has undergone tremendous change in recent years.

    Along with those changes came a surge of new digital platforms, from Facebook and Twitter, to BuzzFeed, Netflix, to VICE, and Vox, to name just a few. These Web-based entities, we're told, will only speed the decline of our dusty old media.

    But not so fast, says columnist and critic Michael Wolff. He has just written he calls a more honest guide to the changing media landscape around us. It's called "Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age."

    Michael Wolff, thanks for being here.

    MICHAEL WOLFF, Author, "Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age": Thank you for having me.


    Television is the new television. Explain. How is that true?


    What do you do all day? What are we doing now? What does everybody — I think I can fairly say, everybody watching now, how do they spend most of their — a good part of their day, certainly more time than they do on the Internet? They watch television.

    As a matter of fact, I think you can go further. What are the most seminal cultural moments in this day and age? It's watching television, whether it's "Mad Men," or "Game of Thrones," or whatever.


    Or the Super Bowl.


    Television is this centerpiece of our lives.

    Now, the interesting thing is that we have been told for rather a long time now that that isn't true, that it isn't true and that it would be ever less true, that the Internet, social media, mobile applications, this was the future, this was media, this was transforming how we thought about media and how we thought about ourselves.

    I thought to myself, whoa, wait a minute, is this really true? And I think it turns out not to be true on an actual, practical basis. We watch television. But then, on the other side, it turns out not to be true — it's not true on a business basis either.

    So we have grown all these digital media companies, and the dirty little secret is that they don't work, they don't make money, that they are — that they have actually created businesses that are bad businesses.


    You write in your book — quote — "Not only has the Web not destroyed TV, but the source of new media's strength, attracting ever more traffic, truly phenomenal traffic, may in fact become its greatest weakness."

    How is that so? How is building a bigger audience a weakness?


    Well, the first thing, you have to look at the quality of the audience.

    So, BuzzFeed brags of an audience of 150 million people a month, millions bigger than the Super Bowl. But is that really true, since it doesn't come remotely, not 1 percent remotely, close to having the earning power and the revenues of the Super Bowl audience? You have to say, what's wrong with this picture?

    And, really, where you come out on this, I think, is saying, no, it's not an audience. As a matter of fact, they don't think even call it an audience. They call it traffic. And it is literally like traffic speeding by, and what BuzzFeed does is put up billboards, which you glimpse for a second, and then you're past.

    And that's basically what advertising is in digital media.


    So, in your mind, is TV a better business model or are they delivering something that is more valuable to us as consumers?


    Well, I think television has done this — actually, it isn't as if television has stood still. Quite the opposite.

    It responded to the competition and did two things. It made a better product. Remember when television was the wasteland? I think you can now argue that digital media and social media, that's the wasteland. And, also, television converted its business model. It used to be 100 percent advertising-supported, except for PBS.

    And now it is actually only 50 percent advertising-supported. The rest comes from fees — well, we all pay an enormous amount every month for television. Digital, on the other hand, because, really, its stated purpose was to eat television's lunch, and it said, let's make everything for free, and we will be fully advertising-supported, a decision that basically means that digital media is — will always be a marginal business.


    Is there something in the digital media world that you look at and you think, this is actually a hopeful model for how the business could go?


    Well, curiously, Netflix.

    But what that means — and I think almost everybody in the digital world is now coming around to this thinking — is, let's go into the television business, because Netflix, while it says it's the disrupter of television, is television. That's what we watch on Netflix.

    And, in fact, Netflix pays almost $2 billion a year to Hollywood and the television industry in licensing fees. But I think almost everybody, Google, Facebook — BuzzFeed recently made the announcement, Huffington Post recently made the announcement that they want to find a way into the television business.


    So, what does that tell you, that if television has created a model that all of these digital disrupters, as you call them, are now emulating, what does that say about what the audience, what we want?


    I think it says very clearly what we want is old-fashioned story. We want well-written, intelligent, structured, well-performed, well-produced content. And I think we want to sit there, and I think we want to enjoy it.


    The book is "Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age."

    Michael Wolff, thank you very much for being here.


    Thank you.

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