Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age (2015), by Michael Wolff


All the world’s a stage.

–William Shakespeare

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

–Joan Didion

It’s about the story. It’s about the music. It’s about the laughs.

–Kevin Morris, Entertainment Lawyer

Most media is entertainment–narrative. Media, or its hold on us, has traditionally required beginning, middle, and end. The filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard, even at a pinnacle postmodernist moment of narrative rebellion, acknowledged as much, merely arguing they did not have to be in that order.… (At) an ultimate level of media, of strategic business decisions about it, and perhaps particularly among people in the technology business–that is, people decidedly not in the media business–it is hardly understood that there is a fundamental distinction or choice, or, more important, relationship, between fiction and nonfiction, between news and narrative, between storytelling and holding the public’s attention. Who wants to bet that such a balance, such an internal sort of algorithm, has ever crossed Mark Zuckerberg’s mind?

–Michael Wolff

At the heart of his profoundly important new book, Michael Wolff, the brilliant, deliciously mean and nasty media philosopher, a bracingly avenging if (to believe the word from his detractors) fallen angel, with a superb and lacerating literary style–he has the touch of a savvy novelist, a self-knowing memoirist, a stern dramatist–gives us a timely and irreverent take on McLuhan’s “The medium is the message”: Don’t be snowed by it. It’s nothing new. It’s just an odd, narrow, shallow way of saying a truth that long predates the ephemeral McLuhan, a truth which in its ancient and purest form is absolutely crucial to that ultimate human challenge, Making Sense.

For Wolff, who brings in Television is the New Television major breaking news about ironic outcomes, including debacles in digital media, for which there should have been but wasn’t “threshold awareness,” narrative itself is the essential medium and itself the message.

It is so in two senses.

First, precisely because of how you have to reflect on experience to narratize it and what the narrative habit of mind brings you to see and judge, narrative brings “threshold awareness” (i.e., we should have seen X coming). It always has. Narrative–story–thematically fosters the rediscovery and abiding awareness of canonical wisdom in its ever-morphing contemporary guises: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”; “Rebels usually imitate the deposed”; “There is no free lunch”; “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of consumers”; “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.” Unless you don’t want to be conned at every turn, from politics to enterprise, and even worse (such as wandering around seriously confused about your divided nature and merely “educated” rather than educated) and therefore at likely peril, refining your inborn predisposition to narrative should be an abiding imperative. In shining passages from beginning to end of Television is the New Television, Wolff is here exemplary, a superb storyteller–a natural narrative writer–who is all about Wising Up, Writ Large.

His tone to us readers is: C’mon! Shape up! Open your eyes! Off with the scales!

Together with: I’ve been closely watching the trends, and this is fun! Come laugh with me at the media Digerati. They deserve it. (As well, almost certainly, as: And by the way, you should have been doing this before I had to write this book.)

Second–and this is Wolff’s bouyed up point–the essential reason for “the unexpected triumph of old media in the digital age” is the old friendship between old media (and yes, including the faltering but still standing print media, television’s enfeebled uncle) and that time-tested, hard-won, noble, and defiant human assault on chaos, old-fashioned narrative. Storytelling. In the lexicon of the trade, the all-important difference is old media’s core of “premium content” (story, narrative)–now more and more blatantly (and laughingly) exposing by contrast the “junk” infusing digital media, junk structurally inevitable in digital media, a lower region in which there is and can be no good home for storytelling.

Yes, Wolff’s breaking news is that contrary to the massive waves of hype, digital media is now (and past the time of “threshold awareness”) and on all fronts, starting to prove that it cannot attract the advertising revenue it needs. “There’s a problem with our business model.” Moreover, it is failing here just as its enormous base of users grows. The scale and economy-of-production of its reach have been its self-proclaimed (not to mention intoxicated and cocky) claim of inevitable revolutionary transformation shouted in the public squares of markets and on campuses near and far (not to mention amplified by a frightened old media). As it desperately tries to add to the number of people using it (“traffic pumping”), it finds that its very dynamics inevitably create an ever lower quality fare, an irony obvious to increasingly disinterested advertisers. New media ad rates are now falling with a thud echoing in (among other places) Wall Street. And indeed, the growth in people using digital media, even at the scale shown in rampant Clickdom, is ultimately finite (as per increasing concerns among advertisers of “click fraud” in “empirical” quantifying of digital media’s “user base” and “traffic flows”).

And here we begin to mingle with investors too. From today’s Wall Street Journal (July 29, 2015) under the headline, “Twitter Must Follow Through”:

“The first step in any turnaround is acknowledging you have a problem. Twitter finally appears to be doing that. Recognition isn’t the same as a solution, though. …forecasts have come down a lot in recent months, along with company guidance. And the shares quickly reversed course (downward) when Twitter made it clear the road to recovery in user growth will be long. Twitter’s research has shown its user base is largely limited to early adopters and has yet to extend to the mass market. …Even if Twitter manages to restart user growth, investors don’t have that kind of patience–especially with it trading at 10 times forward sales. While that is lower than Facebook’s 15 times….

And leaping forth here: “Facebook’s 15 times”! An omen for early birds?

By contrast: Old media, and certainly to include their obtaining a growing (!) ad-based revenue, a fee-based monetizing of the enterprise–once an “impossibility”–has also blossomed because of old media’s core of “premium narrative” which, we are learning yet again, as Joan Didion has famously said, we most eagerly seek, most deeply perhaps “in order to live.” In sum: We’ll pay for narrative. HBO. House of Cards. Breaking Bad. And a gathering wave of more. Not to mention access to classic films (the happily endless “revivals” of Hitchcock’s timeless masterpieces). It doesn’t hurt that the audience for old media, if not matching in number the legion clicksters of digital media, tends to be established and able to pay the fees. One way Wolff puts this: As the media-in-our-time story progresses, ancient CBS’s “old hat,” the formidable Les Moonves, not the hyped and hyping Usual Digital Media Suspects, is the one to watch, the leader and strategist to study. It’s the Thirteenth Round and Moonves, apparently behind on points, has just thrown that knockout right cross in his skilled leveragings of CBS (see Wolff for details).

To switch metaphors, consider along with Moonves the non-Kafkaesque metamorphosis of Netflix into old media (House of Cards, Marco Polo, classic films, etc)–the only plausible renewal for digital media and one now beginning to be pursued broadly and which Wolff delightedly harps on. Indeed, to show Wolff the literary stylist at his purest, here is his narratist’s unsparing, superb, and finally admiring free analysis of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings:

“Hastings is…a salesman. He describes himself in all the ways that tech guys like to describe themselves, as an entrepreneur, as an engineer, as someone surely with the temperament of a technical and software visionary. But really what distinguishes Hastings is that he sells. He courts; he schmoozes; he begs. He has built what he would like to characterize as a tech company not as tech companies are built, on platform functionality, but as media companies are built, on his ability to make deals and then trade up to better deals. …Reed Hastings and Netflix, surprising nobody so much as themselves, woke up as a television channel. Other than being delivered by IP (Internet protocol), Netflix had nothing to do with the conventions of digital media–in a sense it rejected them. It is not user-generated, it is not social, it is not bite size, it is not free. In every way, except for its route into people’s homes–and the differences here would soon get blurry–it was the same as television. It was old-fashioned, passive, narrative entertainment.

In sum, Wolff brings into sharp relief for an America whose business is business that classic monetary limits (not “just” addictive psychological and cultural damage to the minds of people, especially the young, which old-fashioned intellectuals–Luddite downers all–are warning follows from obsessive immersion in Clickdom) are limits loudly making into a shabby comedy any asserting of an Irresistible Growth of digital media. Wolff explicitly has in mind, and nastily pillories, Zuckerberg, Andreessen, Aulette, Denton, Schmidt, Hoffner, and Kvamme (but not Jobs–Wolff characterizes him as an old-fashioned media “mogul”) as representative Digital Fundamentalists. (Wolfe is not broadly lumping breakthrough and estimable technology companies into his merciless expose’–as just three examples, there is no Apple and there are no medical enterprises battling Old Defiant Ahab’s despised pain and suffering besetting the Human Condition, nor, finally, is there the converted-to-salvation Netflix itself, in Wolff’s Swiftian Fable.)

Like all important stories, Television is the New Television is a drama to which you should steal away by yourself. If you find a seat in Wolff’s theater, anticipate scenes from a parade along both Main and Wall Streets, as well as Great America Parkway, in which wealthy but denuded emperors (not Nouveau Riche but Dreck Rich [how about Dreckies?]) bounce past on suddenly more shabby corporate floats: BuzzFeed, Facebook, Gawker, Twitter, Vice, Yahoo, YouTube, et al.

And anticipate episodes from a frightening nightmare in Digital Media Land–to use Wolff’s pithy interpretation of that dream, “The closer the new media future gets, the further victory appears.” Rescue fails by any of the characteristic digital media prescriptions for “traffic pumping”: “SEO (Search Engine Optimization)”; “social network gaming”; “traffic loop aggregation”; “programmatic buying” (e.g., “detaching” the demographic comprising the audience of The New York Times and free-floating it in digital time and space for exploitation by any and all advertisers); “bundling”/”unbundling” venues; merging with and/or acquiring other digital media companies; promoting/extolling all things “user-generated” and “free”; lobbying for favorable definitions of “net neutrality” (in Wolff’s  analysis a thing with the epistemological heft of a unicorn); discovering “irresistible behaviors” of users which would assure more “traffic”; ad nauseam.

By its very nature, and despite it’s confident, Napster-fueled assertions to the contrary (the destruction of the old music business being ancient and anomalous history for Wolff), digital media finds itself falling further and further down the hole that leads to meaningless, undifferentiated traffic aka dreck: “Hallmark drivel,” “cat videos,” “Ginsu knife infomercials,” “lists,” “complaints about neighbors’ dogs,” “party pics,” “keepsakes (which no one keeps),” “crap magazines” and “humblebrags” to categorize but a few. It is to enter a poor world where given the Grand Distraction of the surfing and skipping “users,” the chances of selling anything plummit and the interest of advertisers, a most savvy lot, lessens even with (and indeed, sometimes because of) increases in “traffic” whose quantification is often the most convincing yardstick of futility. It seems the old pitches no longer sell. The business article of faith for digital media–that “visitor traffic” rather than old-fashioned expensive “content” (the ignorant coolster-techie word for “narrative” or “story”) is the holy grail of ad revenue–isn’t hacking it any more.

There’s a second feature on the bill at the Happy Disillusionment Cineplex showing Television is the Next Television. It’s The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. There’s a trailer for it elsewhere in this blog. It’s all about the psychology of losing yourself in the Internet and thereby training your very plastic mind to leave The Pequod for puddle-jumping. You might want to stay for it.

And when you’re back on the street after the showings, perhaps savingly disillusioned, you will probably be worrying yet again about the old, stubborn conundrum of how to use narrative to influence broadly in these perilous times, both to warn of unprecedented danger and to make human life more bearable. Wolff is among the rest of us ponderers here, but his voyage leaves a few faux sheltering harbors behind and faces us toward the open seas we always need to be sailing forth on.