The "Vast Wasteland" Gets Vaster: The Future of Television in the Online Revolution

By Brian Richards
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

In 1961, nearly a decade after the “Golden Age” of television had passed, commercial television was still changing the American lifestyle, from living rooms to bars. It was then that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Newton Minow declared that television was a “vast wasteland” (Vivian 224).

Though Minow would probably maintain his statement in light of the Nielsen ratings for “Dancing With the Stars” or “American Idol,” his moral accusations appear disregarded by his own constituency. Not only did this “wasteland” continue to prosper in bars and living rooms, but it expanded into ever greater frontiers with the development of new technology. Current reports already reveal that the future of TV will not always appear, at least exclusively, on TV. In an already interwoven and interconnected field, television is becoming even more integrated with other communication fields and media as new technology rapidly changes both form and function. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the modern viewer that the future of television will rely heavily on its integration with online communication.

In 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth invented a tube that would capture and transmit moving images—hence television is often colloquially referred to as “the tube” (Vivian 221). The groundbreaking discovery was demonstrated by RCA in 1939’s World Fair, and within two years the FCC licensed the first station in the United States (Vivian 221). In 1954, color television was in effect, and by 1960, 87% of U.S. homeowners had a box (Fitzpatrick). In 1980, cable television launched a second era in television history, which consisted of copper wires packed into coaxial cables that would transmit hundreds of channels into one’s living room (Moyer). Today, there are TV sets in over 110 million American households (Fitzpatrick).

The interconnected media involved in this portion of the world of communication are vast. In fact, even television itself can be seen as the furthering of another industry: radio. Radio shows in the 1930’s and 1940’s were often initially just audio versions of what would soon become televised programs—and in the 1950’s, TV networks drew audiences as well as advertisers from the radio (Vivian 185). Advertising remains one of the key communication specialties related to the field of TV. Advertising is vital in order for networks to receive revenue, taking the form of commercial breaks or product placement in its programming. Public relations keep television functioning by allowing the network organizations to relay messages to their viewers. TV’s entertainers and stars also use PR firms to maintain their public images or to utilize crisis control in times of need. Journalism has been involved in television history since its origins; critics in newspapers and magazines (and now on blogs) have often consistently made or break shows based on their reviews, and further publicize television shows to the masses. Film, of course, has always coincided at times with TV; their professionals (from writers to producers to actors) often overlap. Furthermore, those two mediums themselves often crossover in various ways, whether it is the cinematic approach utilized by The Sopranos or the several films that are born from Saturday Night Live sketches. Thus, journalists, advertisers, public relations specialists, filmmakers, and all the jobs associated with TV (writers, producers, directors, actors, consultants, music coordinators—one can simply watch the end credits of a random series) are all connected to this specialized industry.

The landscape, however, is changing. The interconnection of media and communication professionals with regard to television is not-so-slowly becoming even more interwoven. With the emergence of sites like,,, Netflix’s “Watch Instantly,” or’s Digital Library, a growing number of web-based services “help to exploit the power of Internet-based entertainment” (Moyer). This emergence—or the “Internet invasion”—is often being referred to as the “third era of television” (Moyer). The invasion and era are frightening to copyright holders, movie studios, and over-the-air broadcasters who fear a fate similar to that of the newspaper industry (Moyer).

While some sects of the industry fret the digital threat, it should be noted that the industry is expanding in this very process. The new media marriage between the internet and TV inherently merges all the communication professionals of the world wide web into the aforementioned mix of media specialists. The marriage is best explained by the term IPTV, which stands for Internet Protocol TV, as it “transforms video content…into digital files and makes TV a two-way experience that lets viewers chat on their screens or use their phones to program their DVRs remotely” (Mehta). Now even phone companies have a stake in the television industry. Moreover, the role of the advertiser is shifting as well—and, perhaps surprisingly, in a positive way for that portion of the world of communication. The new technology of IPTV has the capability to relay targeted advertisements to the consumer based on his or her viewing habits and preferences on the computer (Mehta). It is therefore predicted, as marketing Professor at the University of California at Berkely Peter Sealy tells Fortune, that IPTV is “going to open up the opportunity for more dialogue between the marketer and the consumer” (Mehta). The digital revolution of the 21st century has thus been deemed a “godsend,” according to Professor Sealy, for the marketing world (Mehta).

The fusion of communication fields and professionals does not cease there. DirecTV’s satellite-direct programming in 1994 was pivotal in altering the playing field of communication, as satellite companies were put into the picture (Vivian 221). Apple’s creation of the video iPod in 2005 invited the participation of the mobile phone industry, leading to mobisodes—or mini-episodes for mobile television (Vivian 225). This resulted in a diversion (time and space shifts) from the traditional way in which “people adapt[ed] their daily routines to television’s scheduling” into a new relationship wherein “people are watching television when it suits them” (Vivian 225). While New Television—a term that encompasses cable, satellite, handheld, and internet delivery technology—might concern some insiders, it is undeniably “audience empowerment” for those on the receiving end of communication (Vivian 225).

The most recent Writer’s Strike was a historical moment that serves as proof of New Media’s vitality and controversy regarding television and communication. The strike lasted from November 2007 to February 2008 with over 12,000 writers joining in the fight (Cieply). Although there were a variety of issues and factors, ranging from DVD residuals to animation and reality shows, according to The New York Times, the conflict was “not so much a tiff over industry economics as a struggle for power over Hollywood’s perceived digital future” (Cieply). In late November, the strike entered a phase wherein the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East were protesting over a new proposal from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (Cieply). In the proposal, called the New Economic Partnership, writers were offered revised terms for using movies and television shows on the internet but the terms were evidently not revised enough; the guild was still unsatisfied in their demands for new media compensation (Cieply).

The studio side of the argument was less publicly respected but nevertheless very notable in a discussion of new media and the industry. The Times reports, via anonymous “senior” sources, studio and network executives were fighting against potential union pay structures that could prevent their companies from “operating effectively in a rowdy Internet world that has already badly damaged the music and news industries” (Cieply). It was as if the company executives and writers were in an ideological argument over the future of the media or how fast that future was coming, or that companies were scared of that future, or simply that the companies wanted more money. Many will recall seeing signs amongst the publicized protests, some of which read: “The Future Will Not Be Televised…It Will Be Downloaded.” All evidence and trends would suggest this, albeit satirical, charge to be accurate, but there are ways—which involve media convergence and intertwining communication fields and professions—that this does not need to frighten traditional network executives.

Disney can be seen as an exemplar for the transition in question. This company has been a household name for decades and through generations, and its movies are often the first thing children around the world see with respect to media and entertainment. From 1928’s short Steamboat Willie to 1937’s feature Snow White to the theme parks that span from Florida to Paris, when one thinks of Walt Disney, the concept of traditionalism might spring to mind (Vivian 157). Disney currently plays a role in the idea of ownership melds—which complicates the over-air network versus cable network binary—as ABC was subsumed into Disney’s ownership (with ABC Family Channel, ESPN, and SoapNet coming along with it) (Vivian 216). The company has withstood the test of time and evolved at a quick pace, from its animation origins to cable TV.

Now it has been taking a new form entirely, or perhaps more accurately enhancing its business in the current media marketplace. Steve Jobs, of Apple fame and fortune, sold Pixar to Disney ABC for $7.4 billion, making himself the largest Disney shareholder (Vivian 43). In a true example of media convergence and the intertwined nature of communication, “insiders” are discussing the possibility of a 2010 living room containing one box: an “Apple TV that replaces a CD player, a DVD player, a set-top cable box, and a stereo…with digital signals from the Internet or wireless relays” (Vivian 43).

If one views this prediction as too far out or futuristic, one only needs to log onto his or her iTunes library, which contains music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and radio stations. Disney is in the process of attempting to move a significant amount of content to the Internet, even threatening the movie-house industry with the idea of releasing films to both the theater and the internet on the same day (Vivian 43). Apple and Disney reveal a crossover between almost every form of modern communication outside the written word (though it should be noted all of the aforementioned media begin with a writer). Their businesses further show how the internet is not simply challenging the necessity of a TV box, but also the movie theater, the radio, the CD, or the DVD (records, VHS, and audio cassettes do not even appear to be in the mix anymore).

On the subject of Disney, it is interesting to see that former CEO Michael Eisner left the company and created Tornante Company, which merged with the Canadian media conglomerate Rogers Communications to form a studio called Vuguru (Lieberman). Vuguru will buy and develop a form of media that complicates and combines the TV show and the internet: the web-series. Web-series show how communication fields and professions overlap; for one show, Vuguru has teamed up with Big Fantastic (a production company) and United Talent Agency (a PR firm) (Lieberman). Sponsors and advertisers are also vital for web-series. Ads will not only appear on that show’s website, but also on their sponsor Furthermore, ads will run before and after each segment (which will reportedly contain product placement) from Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful juices, and Telflora florists (Lieberman). Web-series can perhaps be seen as a culmination of all this convergence of media relations, as they are becoming increasingly popular and will most likely continue at that rate. Eisner’s shows will also be on user-generated sharing websites like and, sites he claims have “won the short-term sprint” to reach audiences but will eventually lose the “marathon” to “professionally produced, emotionally driven story content” (Lieberman). As webisodes receive hundreds of thousands of views, it is a safe bet to predict the web-series could be a huge piece, if not the crux, of the future of television, entertainment, and communication.

Nielsen, the most famous tracker of television viewing, seems to be aware of this online vitality in the industry they observe. By August of 2010, Nielsen will begin measuring internet usage in America (Li). The decision has been made in response to a variety of network clients (TV networks like News Corp’s Fox and Disney’s ABC as well as advertising companies Proctor & Gamble and Unilever) who have “demanded better accounting of television and internet viewing” (Li). Advertising is further incorporated into the scenario, as seen in September of 2009 when 14 of the world’s largest TV networks, advertisers, and ad agencies formed the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement to research tracking methods of TV and online viewing (Li).

Nielsen’s Three Screen Report covers Television, Internet and Mobile Usage in the U.S. In its third quarter report, it is revealed that 99% of video in America is viewed on traditional TV (Nielsen). That said, DVR viewing shot up a drastic 21.1% while online video viewing significantly increased 34.9% (Nielsen). Trends observed by the company include American consumption of media at a “record pace” with 129 hours of TV, 27 hours of internet, and 3 hours of mobile video each month (Nielsen). The report also sees 57% of Americans practicing what Vivian would call “media multi-tasking,” as they use TV and the internet simultaneously at least once a month (Nielsen, Vivian 41). While an older demographic was perceived as “embrac[ing]” new media (with 63% of internet users and 39% of mobile video users being over 35), the heaviest users of mobile video are teenagers (over seven hours per month viewing and 45-54 users actually logging almost three hours per month) (Nielsen). This suggests that if young people sway in this particular direction it could be a sign of things to come; the trends will only continue, and the future users of communication and media will be well acquainted with its mobile and online form.

The history of television has yet to be completely written, and each year a new chapter unfolds in its evolution. What is most unique about the current state of television is that a great deal of its programming is becoming popular when it is not actually on television. With time shifts and space shifts, New Television is also shifting and merging forms. With roots in theater and radio, with assistance from advertisers and PR firms, with reviews from journalists, and its current appearance on the web and mobile devices, the transition of television reveals the increasingly intertwined methods of modern communcation.


Cieply, Michael. "Both Sides in Writers’ Strike See New-Media Future at Stake." The New York Times 1 Dec. 2007: n. pag. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.  

Fitzpatrick, Laura. "A Brief History Of: Television." Time 22 June 2009: 18. General OneFile. Web. 8 Dec. 2009. gps/

Li, Kenneth. "Nielsen turns to internet usage." Financial Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

Lieberman, David, and USA TODAY. "Eisner to take on the Internet." Web. 7 Dec. 2009.

Mehta, Stephanie N. "HOW THE WEB WILL SAVE THE COMMERCIAL: The fusion of TV and the Internet is coming. For marketers, this revolution can't arrive soon enough." Fortune 8 Aug. 2005: 58. General OneFile. Web. 8 Dec. 2009.

Moyer, Michael. "The Everything TV." Scientific American Nov. 2009: 74-79. Environment Complete. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.

Nielsen. "A2/M2 Three Screen Report." Nielsen Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement 6.3rd Quarter (2009): 1-5. Nielsen. Web. 6 Dec. 2009.

Vivian, John. MyCommunicationLab with E-Book Student Access Code Card for The Media of Mass Communication (standalone) (9th Edition). 9 ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2008. Print.

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