Saturday, May 05, 2007

Not To Burst Your Bubble, But...

Brian Lowry's write-up at Variety today suggests that there is still ample life in traditional print and broadcast media, and that these media outlets have little to fear from the evolution of the internet and digital media.

About the decline in newspaper circulation, movie theater attendance, (etc.), Lowry asks: What if everybody's wrong? That is, what if all we have to do is rearrange traditional content then adapt a different long-term view in operating them. However, Lowry offers no solid argument in support of this proposal.

Lowry cites (billionaire) Mark Cuban as saying on 'Sunday Morning Shootout' (you can see a clip here), that if you can buy a (large) TV for, say, $1200, then watching TV is fun again. This logic is full of holes, but before I get to that it's important to point out that Cuban led up to this conclusion by asserting that, "Everything that you do on your PC is going to be integrated into your TV."

This speaks volumes. Cuban believes the internet is migrating to TV, not the other way around. He is of a mind that, in the future, online content will be displayed 'screen-in-screen' on your TV set.

I don't see how this could happen. Here's why: A computer can do everything a TV can, but a TV cannot do anything a computer can (except display picture with sound). Therefore, it does not seem palatable that internet content and computer functionality should be displayed on a TV screen. It does, however, seem logical to display TV shows (otherwise known as video content) on a computer monitor. With such a setup the user would be able to do everything that can currently be done on a computer and watch any TV content (as long as it's available online). The TV show could be watched at any time, even weeks after the show aired, and could be paused to allow for, say, sending a quick email.

It also seems clear that TV is increasingly accessed via a cable or satellite feed, not free over the airwaves. I don't know anyone who doesn't have cable (or satellite). Do you? While it may be convenient to turn on the kitchen TV (that receives its signal through the air) while cooking breakfast, most people settle in to watch shows on a set which is hooked up to a cable. If TV broadcast is migrating to cable (the most popular way of delivering internet content), it follows that the next step in content integration is to use a computer to watch TV shows, not to use a TV to access computer functionality.

I agree with Cuban's assertion that content will be integrated, but disagree that the migration will be toward TV technology, which is some 60 years old now.

Now on to the logic of the correlation between the price of a large TV set and the fun of watching TV shows. Most would agree that a big picture is better than a small picture, and that paying less for a big TV is better than paying a lot, and that watching TV on a big screen that you did not pay a lot of money for may be thought of as 'fun'. However, this has nothing to do with the quality of the content. While watching a favorite show or movie on a big screen is preferable to watching it on a tiny screen, the size of the screen does not affect the quality of the show. To wit: A very large display screen does not make a bad show into a good show. If this were the case a bad show projected onto the side of a building would be as good as, or possibly better than, a good show watched on a tiny TV.

I have to argue that while an affordable 70-inch display may be an attractive idea it can't stop a ratings-slide or entice an audience to watch TV shows they don't like. If television networks are having trouble holding an audience, they could try giving away giant TV sets but I don't think it would work. Delivering content the audience wants, and most importantly when they want it, is what will work. Such content may be found on the internet.

Now, back to Lowry's piece. He has established that Cuban feels that TV can be fun and the internet will not supplant traditional television broadcasting. Lowry then proceeds, in the next paragraph, with this sentence: Cuban isn't the only deep-pocketed tycoon making an iconoclastic bet. I'm sorry, but I don't see what's iconoclastic about suggesting that traditional television content will not be threatened by a new online media. It is not iconoclastic to suggest that a traditional media will survive. Lowry seems to be writing in his sleep here. He has used Cuban's shaky comment as a convenient pivot-point for an argument that goes against the grain, then contradicts himself by calling Cuban an iconoclast. Perhaps I'm missing some subtle irony in Lowry's composition. Perhaps his column cleverly suggests that traditional media is dead while seeming to contradict those who would suggest otherwise, all while using language so cleverly that he cannot be held accountable for taking either stance. (I apologize for the preceding sentence).

Lowry then continues with a couple tidbits about Zell's involvement with Tribune and Murdoch's flirting with WSJ. However, rich people have been buying newspapers for a long time. And, newspaper circulation is in decline. So, citing that rich people have bought (or are trying to acquire) more newspapers does nothing toward advancing the argument that traditional newspaper content is not threatened by digital media.

Lowry further speculates about the nature of Murdoch's hopes for Dow Jones, saying "...he's wagering he can achieve what Tribune could not -- namely, to combine print, TV and online in a synergistic manner that actually unlocks additional value." Doesn't this argue that Murdoch is thinking of embracing digital media? WSJ reports that Murdoch is thinking of "putting more capital behind the company's (Dow Jones) electronic properties," but this seems to be an argument for internet integration, not for traditional newspapers as a stand-alone product. How does this support the notion that traditional print media is not threatened by digital media?

I just have one more bone to pick. What's with Lowry's last paragraph? First point: Lowry says, "In truth, answers will only come as...(we)...look back on this decade with the benefit of hindsight..." and follows with "...there's little time for that in the heady rush toward digital nirvana." Brian, really. There's little time to look back in hindsight on the current decade while we rush forward? Just because you start a sentence with 'In truth' doesn't make it truthful (or logical).

Mr. Lowry finishes with a comparison of the current transformation in media to the failed dot coms of the 90s. I'm afraid I don't see the connection. The dot com bubble burst was about the failure of internet-based financial ventures (which were unsound). The current threat to traditional media has to do with the evolution of the internet and its effect on consumer access to news, television shows, and movies.

I'm sorry burst your bubble Brian, but your piece has the ring of something written at the eleventh hour to beat deadline. However, it does shed light on the problem at hand -- I'll give you that. Unfortunately, the problem you shed light on is that of poor writing and the way it tends to turn people off -- I mean...why bother to read a newspaper if the writing is poorly crafted? Problem is, you write for a website not a newspaper, so I guess you really didn't shed any light on the issue after all. (I apologize for the rather convoluted logic of this last paragraph, but I'm sure you get it).

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