On the back cover of Michael Wolff’s new book, Television Is the New Television: The Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age, his publisher does its best to amp up expectations. Instead of running touts for the book (or for Wolff’s other titles, which include his gossipy Rupert Murdoch biography The Man Who Owns the News and Autumn of the Moguls), it quotes other media outlets slamming the writer. Wonkette is quoted calling him “a mindless jerk” and this magazine once saying he’s “possibly the bitchiest media big foot writing today.” The marketing department then goes in for the hoary cover-line kill: “If you think that’s nasty [insert dramatic pause here] wait until Wolff’s enemies read Television Is the New Television.”
Wolff’s enemies can relax. The book, to its detriment, is almost entirely free of the kind of wise-ass, biting takedown that has made the writer such a maddening, and often electrifying, force. Instead, it has the feel of a series of dutiful stand-alone essays, each of them interesting enough but none building to any kind of convincing argument. (It says something that the chapters average about eight pages each, and the book strains to hit 200 pages, a hint that some of this material has been cribbed from Wolff’s other shorter-form writing; in the acknowledgements, he writes that “aspects of this material” have appeared in his columns in USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter, British GQ and Vanity Fair.)
For those of us in the media business, one of the sinful pleasures of reading Wolff is the man’s unwavering confidence in his own opinion. In his spicier moments, he functions as a business-page Christopher Hitchens, cocksure and entertaining in his argument, even if you don’t agree with a word of it.
In this book, Wolff is neither convincing nor funny, and I didn’t even walk away convinced that he believes his own argument. In Television Is the New Television, the idea is that television, which most certainly was supposed to have been BitTorrented and iTuned to death by now, has instead emerged triumphant over the digital hordes.
Fifteen years ago, in the waning days of the last tech boom, I was an editor at Inside.com, a media news web site co-founded by Michael Hirschorn, now a television producer, and Kurt Andersen, now best-known as the host of public radio’s “Studio 360.” After hiring dozens of people, many of us at inflated salaries, and plowing through tens of millions of dollars in venture capital money, desperation had set in: Ad revenues were too tiny to support our bloated operation, and few of our readers had the slightest interest in paying for what we were giving them. The solution was to create a print edition of the web site, a magazine also called Inside, tasked with somehow finding a way to lure in ad money that wanted nothing to do with the web. It didn’t work, and Inside was all but dead a few months later.
The first cover story of that print Hail Mary was written by myself and a colleague, Scott Collins. The cover featured a photograph of a 1950s-style television set, under the headline “The New Killer App.” The idea of the piece was that the television business—old-school, high-overhead, mass-market—was thriving in the digital age, against all odds. It was the sort of contrarian, go-figure piece that Inside had tried, and failed, to build into a franchise.
That was in 2000. Now, Michael Wolff has written the same story, in the form of a patchy new book. Today, like then, there is talk of bust and excess, giving writers like us, then, and Wolff, now, a green light to trot out an idea that seems to go so firmly against the digital grain. But the argument, in his version as it was in ours, is mainly for show, holding up the success of a tiny slice of the television world in order to craft a provocative line that is no truer now than it was 15 years ago.
Wolff’s case for why things are different now rests primarily on the observation that, since digital media has become such a high-volume game, where 50 million or 100 million or even 150 million monthly visitors are needed to make the top tier, the content has been shaved down to such a middlebrow, mass-market level as to be almost commodity-like in its lameness. There’s a smart core insight here, which is that a lot of the biggest digital upstart news sites have come to resemble bush-league Midwestern Sunday papers—the very properties that they themselves started off ridiculing.
But Wolff can’t leave it at that. Instead, he trots out a metaphor on every page to describe the digital drivel, equating it to canned food after World War II, a busy street with traffic and loud noise, daytime infomercials, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” public-access cable channels, “Hogan’s Heroes,” and—my favorite—“one’s sister playing the piano for houseguests in the 1920s.”
Television, by contrast, has succeeded by going upmarket as digital has gone down. This, the second part of Wolff’s argument, is where the book unravels. In his view, it’s the beginning-middle-and-end nature of how shows are built, its ability to tell compelling narrative stories (including live sports), that have enabled traditional television to keep its ad rates relatively high, and to build a massive base of viewers who will pay for its content while digital publishers labor under the mantra that all information should be free. Wolff is, essentially, making the argument of every panicky newspaper and magazine hack—that at some point, quality reporting and writing will win out, that readers and advertisers will realize that the news and information they can get for free in fact has little value.
“Digital media became the stuff of short attention spans and restless energy,” Wolff writes near the end of the book, “while television became storytelling on a riveting, epic, moral, how-we-live now scale: the baby boom trying to understand itself and the world it has wrought.”
I don’t know where Wolff is getting his TV, but it’s not what’s coming through my cable box in Brooklyn. I can count the number of riveting, epic, moral, how-we-live now shows on one hand, two hands in a good year, leaving the other 200 or so channels churning out exactly the kind of drivel he sees as the province of the web. In fact, I would guess there’s about the same number of digital properties out there that routinely amaze and inspire me. I call it a draw.
There’s so much else either overstated or unaccounted for in Wolff’s book that I became convinced he was writing this as the sort of conversation starter you throw out at the beginning of a dinner party, knowing it will get slapped down but still appreciated by the host as a way to get things flowing.
Comparing BuzzFeed, Gawker, and The Huffiington Post with “The Sopranos” is such an apples-and-oranges exercise as to be useless. It would be more relevant to compare those digital news properties to TV’s news divisions, which are indeed struggling for viewers (under 70 years old) and relevancy. Yet TV news is completely ignored in Wolff’s story.
Wolff also surely knows that the content of our early-stage digital world is much like, well, television in the 1950s. “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” were nobody’s vision of high-brow success. But television evolved, and some of it got better, just as digital media will improve and find its compelling version of the narrative three-act drama. These are very early days.
Wolff employs a tautological trick when he comes across examples of digital media that are, now, succeeding at becoming more TV-like, whether it’s Netflix or Amazon or Vice. Instead of conceding them as counter-examples, he tries, unconvincingly, to argue that because they lean on some of television’s business models, and at times on network programming, they are, in essence, TV. It’s a maddening circle.
What I don’t understand is what Wolff thinks happens next. Does TV keep its cultural and economic dominance (which in reality is limited to a small number of prestige players) while digital media lowest-common-denominators itself to death? Will digital players like Google, which Wolff reports considered bidding for the rights to NFL games, never cut a content deal that delivers the kind of programming that people will pay for? Are we really convinced that Amazon and Netflix and their offspring won’t become the next great entertainment powerhouses?
I don’t think Wolff believes any of that, and neither do I.
After the Inside.com shutdown, I was bruised by the digital business, much as I imagine Wolff must have been after his own 1990s digital flameout (chronicled in his book Burn Rate). I kept my professional distance from the web, and still on some level want to believe that the Silicon Valley smugness Wolff portrays in his book will be taken down. (His prologue, about a meeting between some Hollywood types and their obnoxious digital counterparts, is deliciously told, and unfortunately the high point of the book.)
Today, I run a group of weekly community newspapers, the anti-Internet if there ever was one. But I do it because I enjoy the work and think it has value for our readers. I’m not going to try and convince you it’s the wave of the future. The past can’t be recorked. Television isn’t the new television. All of us, including and especially one of our most prolific media pundits, can see where things are going, quickie books notwithstanding.