TV vs. the Internet: Who Will Win?

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Amazon Studios
Jeffrey Tambor as the transgender character Maura in Transparent, an Amazon Original series that can be watched only on the Internet

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Between 1999 and 2009, annual revenues in the music industry declined from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion, according to the market analysis firm Forrester Research. The music business was first attacked from below by illegal file sharing on Napster and subsequently from above by Apple’s iTunes, which unbundled fourteen-dollar CDs into ninety-nine-cent songs. Even as user habits have shifted again, away from owning digital audio files such as MP3s and toward renting music from streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, recording industry revenues have remained flat, below the level where they were in the 1970s.

Newspapers followed a similar pattern, sustaining a much greater destruction of value in a shorter period of time. From 2006 to 2012, revenues fell from $49.3 billion to $22.3 billion, according to trade association figures. The challengers from below included Craigslist, which turned the multibillion-dollar print classified business into a multimillion-dollar online business. Google diverted other advertising dollars while online news sapped print circulation.

These disruptions left the question of when the television business would face its turn on the dissecting table. But despite sharing the vulnerabilities of other long-standing media—shrinking audiences, changing consumption patterns, new competition for ad dollars—the television dinosaur has only grown fatter. According to the research firm SNL Kagan, cable TV revenues rose from $36 billion in 2000 to $93 billion in 2010. Profits of the giant conglomerates—ABC/Disney, NBC Universal, Fox, Viacom, and CBS—have continued to climb in the years since. Cable operators thrive despite antiquated technology, extreme customer dissatisfaction, and the challenge of Internet streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which now create their own original content as well. Even local broadcast stations remain highly profitable despite the declining audiences for their core news product, thanks in part to a surge of political spending following the Citizens United decision in 2010.

How the television business has eluded the bitter fate of other media is the subject of Michael Wolff’s new book, Television Is the New Television. “For sixty years, television, given massive generational, behavioral, and technological shifts, has managed to change…not so much,” he writes. To Wolff, the industry’s imperviousness to digital disruption counts as nothing short of heroic. In an assemblage of digressive riffs, he praises television’s stodginess in defense of profits. This stands in contrast to newspapers and magazines, which he derides for embracing digital transformation in ways that have only accelerated their decline. For example, he criticizes The New York Times for relinquishing its attachment to a print edition that still provides nearly 80 percent of its revenue in favor of the much smaller, “profitless space” online.

Wolff contends that television learned a useful lesson from the gutting of the music industry. The record companies were at first lackadaisical in protecting their intellectual…


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