New media never wipes out old media. This is an article of faith for those who otherwise might be spooked by the pace of change. It got another trot around the block at a press conference in Sydney yesterday when Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, assured everyone that the “demise of broadcast television is a fallacy.”

“As new technologies become available [it leads to more options] but the old technology doesn’t disappear,” said Eisner, who is in Australia for this week’s Global Business Forum. Eisner said the bigger issue in the US was the move to pay television, which was creating a TV underclass that could not afford to pay for content that was previously free.

But the “underclass” issue shows the flaw in taking too much reassurance from the “new media never kills old media” line. In fact it isn’t hard to go through the history of news, media and entertainment and find forms of communication that have been either wiped out or fundamentally altered.

Town criers – now a tourist novelty. Music Hall Theatre. Live theatre generally is not dead, but it’s no longer mass entertainment, more an expensive treat for the well-to-do. LP records. Polaroid cameras. Videos – on the way out. Cassette tapes – almost gone. In our own time it is easy to see that music CDs and music-based radio are likely to be severely challenged within the next five years. (Anyone with more examples, please feel free to e-mail)

And while free-to-air television will be around for a while, most industry figures suspect that its glory days are gone. But the real point of Eisner’s comments is that the threat is not so much to the form of the media, but to the business models that pay for the content.

As the audiences for advertising fragment, it is likely that people will have to pay much more than they do now for news, information and entertainment. One of the gloomier of the many possible futures is that media with rich content – particularly quality journalism and drama – will become a minority and elite concern, rather like live theatre is now.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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