What media history tells us

Much has been written recently about the parallels between what’s happening to today’s media and the crisis in network radio during the late 1940s.

Thanks to Stephen Goforth for pointing out an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal that illustrates what history should tell us about today’s economic troubles.

Network TV lost vast amounts of money in its early years. It was only because the existing ­radio networks were willing to subsidize TV that it survived—leaving CBS and NBC at the top of the heap in the ’50s and ’60s, just as they had been in the ’30s and ’40s. The old media of today have a similar chance to prosper tomorrow if they can survive the heavy financial losses that they’re incurring while they develop workable new-media business models.

Established radio performers such as [Jack] Benny and [Bob] Hope, who embraced TV on its own visually oriented terms, flourished well into the ’60s. Everyone else—­including Fred Allen—vanished into the dumpster of entertainment history. The same fate awaits contemporary old-media figures unwilling to grapple with the challenge of the new media, no matter how popular they may be today.

Americans of all ages ­embraced TV unhesitatingly. They felt no loyalty to network radio, the medium that had entertained and informed them for a quarter-century. When something came along that they deemed superior, they switched off their radios without a second thought. That’s the biggest lesson taught by the new-media crisis of 1949. Nostalgia, like guilt, is a rope that wears thin.

Of course, radio is still around, but its role has changed. I think newspaper and television companies will be around 60 years from now as well. What history tells us is that they’re going to change; now we have to figure out what that new role will be.   Newspapers need to stop trying to prove how important they are and TV newsrooms need to stop assuming that the Web won’t hurt them as much as it did newspapers.  The time to lament and ignore is past.

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