Are We There Yet?
In his Archive of American Television interview back in 1997, Hugh Downs, who got his start in radio, said this of TV's first years: "I thought it was a gimmick like 3-D movies and it would just go away... I saw in a relatively short time that it was here to stay, and that I'd better move toward participating in it." There is a similar conflict happening now between the established medium of television and original Web content.
Transitioning himself from radio to TV in the 1940s was the right thing to do at the right time for Downs, even when the audiences and sponsorship dollars were not yet there. Which brings us to today: Where are we in the transition to new media? When you see the numbers of teens and 20-somethings forsaking traditional TV for online video exclusively, it seems as if we should be seconds away from hordes of smart, successful TV people making lots of money creating broadband content. But we're not there yet.
When television launched in the late 1940s, most movie studios forbade (yes forbade!) their talent from appearing on TV. For years, movie stars and even fans thought of TV people as B-list celebrities. Slowly, a few TV-only stars and shows made it above the fray, and they're still household names today.
Yet, sorry to say, the Internet has yet to spawn a true A-list celebrity who's not a cat. Why? Because true Internet content creation, complete with storytelling, is still a second-class citizen. Worst of all, the minute anything viable shows up on the Internet, TV still has the money to lure the wayward child back to the mothership.
TV people have been reluctant to do Internet-only work if there's a broadcast job to be had. Many TV stars do extras to promote their broadcast shows, but moving exclusively to Web distribution is still considered a step down.
It's no surprise that something similar happened in the radio-to-TV transition: radio stars, big deals back then, sometimes allowed their shows to be simulcast on television -- but didn't turn off the radio mike until they knew TV was stable. Those who didn't make the move at all are forgotten.
There are some TV people who bravely dipped their toes into the broadband world: Will Ferrell, Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, and Lisa Kudrow, to name a few. The water must have been really cold (or unprofitable), because Kudrow's show "Web Therapy," which launched as a Web series, was recently picked up by Showtime for airing on good old-fashioned cable TV. The same happened with Herskovitz and Zwick's "Quarterlife," which found itself as a short-lived series on NBC. A TV deal is still considered trading up, even if the aggregate numbers of viewers and anytime access (to a younger audience, at that) are potentially better on the Web.
Things will change as the content matures and everyone figures out how to monetize all this (just like they did on TV). Early TV programming is not so different from today's Internet hits. Is the Web series "The Annoying Orange" (with 64 million views) that different from 1949's mildly subversive "Time for Beany?" Is "Fred" (with 21 million views) that far away from 1954's "The Pinky Lee Show"?
If TV history is any indication, a "Golden Age" comes next for original Web video. In the '50s and '60s, well-written long-form live TV dramas as well as comedy hits like "I Love Lucy" changed the way America consumed media (and helped end movie studios' media domination). Eventually, content creators will develop long-form programming using interactivity to tell stories in new ways. Maybe we'll see fewer 3-minute one-joke videos and more 12-minute masterpieces. And of course, no one will complain if a same-day Old Spice ad pops up to cover the costs.