Let's start with a few disclaimers. First of all, I've known Michael for a long time, and I'm a fan of his writing even when I don't agree with his conclusions. He's made a career out of biting the hand that feeds him, taking on media power players and poking around in places that the big players would rather he leave out of the public eye.
Wonkette once called Wolff "a mindless jerk who'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes." And New York Magazine called him an, "angry man for pay," which is probably true, but also one could argue that's the role of lots of folks in media who tilt at windmills. Perhaps he just does it better that others and more reliably.
Be that as it may, I bring all of my biases and concerns along with me when I opened the pages of his new book, Television is the New Television. My concern is that he's going to make a series of breezy, from the mount, prognostications about TV. But as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead, Wolff digs in deep and comes up with a series of disturbing conclusions that deserve serious consideration.
He starts with some assumptions that he says the media has been operating under; new is better than old. Old media mavens are a little more than emperors with no clothes. He names names. In his presumed thesis "blinded by the new", he calls Les Moonves of CBS an "old-fashioned" television executive, and Brian Roberts of Comcast "sinister and hard to understand." Says Wolff, "fundamentally it's a generational argument, the old folks die, the young take over." New media will replace old.
Then he whacks you upside the head: "The problem with this story is that none of it is true. The closer the new media future gets, the further away victory appears." If this seems a bit like a lesson he learned two books ago, in Burn Rate, that could be true. But it also could be torn from the pages of a cover story in Ad Age dated April 13th, 2005 called "Chaos Scenario." In it, Bob Garfield, media critic and occasional ad curmudgeon, suggests that the future of "new media" might be catastrophic. And now, 10 years later, Wolff seems to agree.
As he pokes at media -- both new and old -- for a moment he seems to settle on one company that might be able to bring "new" media into the new world. Hardly a surprise, it's Facebook. Says Wolff, "This is largely the Facebook proposition. It can qualify and reorder the custom package in such a way that it will have a heightened impact on a pool of readers to suitably attractive to advertisers." Ah ha! New media works. But not so fast; "The form itself still needs upgrading. And what will this upgrade actually be? 'mostly video' according to Zuckerberg, within five years."
So that's the thesis. We've seen the future. And the future is TV. Which is why Wolff is skeptical of the Zuckerberg prognosis, "Mark Zuckerberg is neither showman, nor salesman, nor attention seeker... The problem which Zuckerberg sheepishly avers, is that what is overwhelmingly most effective for building revenues at Facebook turns out to be video. Can you succeed in the video business without making actual media -- without being in show business?" Wolff is skeptical.
So, how does this offer a view of the future? Wolff admits, for a time it looked like "new" would replace "old" media, "The media business really did seem done for. Positioning itself for a long and painful decline," he reports after sharing the corporate re-makings of Viacom/CBS, Time Warner, and the arrival of the evil DVR and Netflix change agents. "Rome burned. And there was clear logic why the fire was going to consume television."
And in the midst of this all -- TV's years of risk and decline -- Wolff reports of the Barbarians at the TV gates known as YouTube. But here too Wolff suggests that while early arbiters suggested that YouTube with its open video piracy platform and its deep pocketed owner in Google, was sure to consume television, it didn't turn out that way. He credits the Viacom lawsuit with pushing back the YouTube attack -- as the "free" web and the paid "television" worlds collided. Says Wolff, "If video piracy was not defeated, it was, to a large degree the result of the Viacom suit -- pushed back to the margins. Digital media wasn't stealing television's business; it was entering it."
From Wolff's perch, a new "quality" YouTube, sanitized for advertisers called "YouTube Preferred" was an acknowledgment that Google had entered the TV business. As he explains, "It was a bifurcated strategy. the original YouTube would be related to a nether YouTube, a low-end and low-margin outlet, like certain low-performing areas the cable dial. A new, sanctioned, and promoted YouTube, with content suitable and tailored to big advertisers brands, would rise to the top and become the face of YouTube." Maybe others have said this, but not as clearly as Wolff states it here. YouTube had tried to fund its own channels, with a quarter-billion dollar bet that had been shut down. Instead, it was now embracing its home-grown talent, and turning the best of the "native" content into advertiser-safe channels to be bought with very much the same rules and tools as conventional TV.
"Television had come to YouTube, it was the hand they had to play," writes Wolff. "What seems clear is that the future of YouTube was not YouTube. It was the established video marketplace." And even as YouTube is leaning into television, Facebook, now with its shiny new homegrown player, is inviting publishers and premium content creators to bring their content and their audiences to the Facebook Newsfeed. "As the value of amateur video sinks, the hope at YouTube, and now too, at Facebook, is in 'premium video.' In other words, Facebook seeing itself as a potential new sort of dial serving up television recommendations from your friends as well as through paid promotions."
And so, in determining the winner of the web video battles, Wolff also proclaims the losers. And those proclamations, though not touted on the book's celebratory cover, are far more dire.
"The benefits of digital media were, of course, not billed as mere efficiency. The benefits were, rather, little less than a social revolution involving openness, access, collaboration, participation, and a trillion followers blooming," Wolff accurately reported. But then he lowers the hammer. "In the beginning it was that the trillion flowers and individualized web sites would exist in some kind of more level equilibrium with Google providing equal access. But Google and Facebook, driving on efficiency -- and efficiency being what they're good at -- imposed a system of regulation and sameness."
Ok, now we're at the crux of the argument, that the web's brief moment in the sun, allowing the voices of individuals and the publishing of diverse and unique perspectives was little more than an aberration. That media dollars, technology platforms, and an audience ready to accept algorithmic channel constructs will always hue toward mass rather than niche content.
"Digital's early attraction, it's counterpoint to television was the promise of infinite uniqueness, but the reality, after an era of top-down systemization and control, and the constant optimization of technology itself, was an effective repetition and blandness, the hallmark drivel of social media, the qualified and tested lists and headlines of BuzzFeed."
The web, says Wolff, is TV. Nothing more, nothing less. "The digital industry, wearing out its various novelties... reverts to its pure distribution function... and seeks out the highest-value products it can provide its customers, which in the media business is the extraordinary variety, the quite astonishing inventiveness, and the cultural primacy of television."
TV is mass media. If you buy Wolff's prognosis, that's what the future the Internet will be. Entertaining, mass-media, pablum. With quality content and community as a mere bump in the road. Unfortunately, he makes a good point.
Steven Rosenbaum is serial entrepreneur, author, and filmmaker. His latest book, Curate This! is in print and ebook on Amazon.com. He is the CEO of Waywire.com (enterprise.waywire.com)