Sep 5, 2009

"Abandoned Like the Bones at a Barbecue"

Terry Teachout looks back instructively to another media upheaval and its casualties: the radio-to-TV switch, which happened aguably more brutally and quickly than the print-to-web switch is shaking down today. His takeaway:
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 Benny and 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.

The lessons for newspapers and established media companies (and writers and editors and producers, as well): adoption outpaces monetization, but it will catch up. Hang in, invest, and adapt or help yourself to the sour grapes.

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