Take-Aways from Michael Wolff’s “Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph Of Old Media In the Digital Age.”

Michael Wolff’s  PBS interview motivated me to buy his “Television is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media In the Digital Age.” I am very interested in online economic models, and I was intrigued by his ideas about the money behind old and new media.

As the title implies, the book is mostly about where television and the cable industry, the “main providers of digital access,” get their money. Wolff is specific as he attempts to build a case for the supremacy of television, video, and cable over digital media. He names Netflix as “the first successful seller of content in the digital world” who “proved the subscription model.” He attributes the rising success of video to its narrative value, which “refocused attention” and became a “way to watch television.” He uses sports as an example to point out the “extreme” cultural conflict between digital and traditional media.

Unfortunately, those are my only major take-aways. Wolff’s “Television is the New Television” is simply one, big information dump. If Wolff is a fan of narrative, it is surprising that there is no meta-narrative here. He leaves readers to make their own connections and to find an elusive significance in this 200-page book.

A main flaw is the lack of careful definitions. Wolff’s working concepts of television, new media, video, and cable desperately need to be clarified and presented to make his argument accessible and valid. There simply is no attempt to tie things together: I was especially disappointed in the abrupt ending. I gather he has a big vocabulary, but is it necessary to use proscenium, bifurcated, or somnolence here?

Perhaps Wolff’s intention was not to offer a fresh and informed perspective on the economic differences between old and new media, but instead, as the reviews on the book jacket suggest, “get nasty” with his enemies. If he is trying to take down digital media, then he’ll have to do a better job. Describing digital media as “the new wasteland” and labeling the digital users as “a new sort of half-aware audience of coach potatoes mindlessly shuttled between social media prompts and headlines” is simply inaccurate.

Television viewers are not an active audience and digital users are not passive, as Wolff suggests. Television is not upscale and digital downscale. In applying these simplified labels, Wolff neglects to develop any meaningful and well-supported argument about the relationship of video and television and their distribution via digital networks. This attempt to cast the Internet and digital media into a television-style mass medium reads like a corporate dream that ignores the historical development of the Internet and its Web. Digital media have so much more potential than merely to serve as a programming platform: freely provided information is a social and intellectual advance.

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