Book Review: 'Television Is The New Television'

When television was invented, it was expected to quickly replace recreational reading. The rise of digital media over the past 20 years has led to the popular notion that it will eventually replace the giant old media. Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser and columnist at Vanity Fair, New York and USA Today, disagrees.

He sets out to dispel this perception in his new book, "Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media In the Digital Age." In it, he explains who really makes money in this changing media landscape and how. 

Wolff points out that digital media is primarily ad-supported, whereas a big chunk of television’s income comes from other sources and has remained stable throughout generational and technological changes during the last 60 years. Thus, he safely assumes that people likely won’t stop watching TV (as business model), even if they stop watching the TV (as distribution channel). Therefore, digital, according to Wolff, is unlikely to ever seize any significant portion of television’s revenue.



Yes, new media is able to provide more accurate measurability than traditional media ever could. As audiences became more valuable, the business of buying media became about measurement. But despite digital’s ability to tailor and curate highly personalized content via algorithms, information can still be short-lived or skimmed altogether.

Despite the amount of traffic they attract, digital media are aggregators by nature and not content creators. Wolff makes a distinction between media (as an environment or show) and utility (as conduit or the back end). He repeatedly quotes Zuckerberg’s craving for video as most effective for building Facebook’s revenues in the next five years.

But as Wolff reasonably inquires, “Can you succeed in the video business without making actual media – without being in show business?” His answer to that question is predictably negative.

The book has certainly benefited from Wolff’s unprecedented sources and firsthand insight into the industry. He meticulously chronicles major events and cites key figured influencing the media landscape -- although a reader might occasionally feel overwhelmed by continuous name-dropping combined with bombastic sentences, a prose style that makes it occasionally hard to grasp the author's meaning.

Still, "Television Is the New Television" (Portfolio/Penguin) is a great read for someone wanting to take an unconventional look at new media vs old media dynamics as opposed to blindly accepting general assumptions that might be wrong from the start.

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