Thursday, March 27, 2008

Big theory, bad thesis

Two guys from an online magazine succumb to cyber-hubris:
If 1960 was the year that TV displaced radio as the main platform for political persuasion, then the 2008 primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton may go down in history as the moment when the Internet ended the dominance of television.

This is not true. Whatever the numbers of people who follow political news via the Internet, the number who follow the news via TV is many, many times larger. The nightly news broadcasts of the three major networks drew an average combined audience of 25 million during November 2007. Nothing online as yet has that impact, that reach, that authority.

By the way, this is my major complaint with certain Republicans who claim that the existence of Fox News has rendered the "Big Three" networks obsolete and irrelevant. Bill O'Reilly reaches an audience that is only a fraction of Brian Williams' audience; network news is therefore still very relevant in terms of its power to shape public perception.

Far be it from me to disparage the political significance of the Internet. But the Internet -- at least as a vehicle for political news -- is essentially an elite medium, one that chiefly reaches hard-core political junkies. And I don't say that to disparage hard-core political junkies. I am merely trying to make clear that a link at the Drudge Report will not, by itself, drive a political story into the wider public consciousness.

A lot of the "inside baseball" political gossip that gets kicked around on blogs is utterly unknown to 90% of the American voting public. About 110 million Americans voted in 2004. Where is the online political site that reaches 10 percent of that electorate? Nowhere.

The two guys claiming that the Internet has "ended the dominance of television" offer as their supposed proof the fact that Barack Obama's videos have garnered a total of 33 views. They then provide the datum that Obama's most popular video has gotten 3.9 million views, and that Obama's top 10 most popular videos average 1.1 million views.

What these numbers actually tell us is that there is a hard core of Obama-crazy YouTube-watchers -- totalling aboout 1 million -- and that Obama's most popular video has been seen by a total viewship (which surely includes many repeat viewers) about 1/6th the size of the network TV audience. So much for the end of TV's dominance, eh?

Jon Henke, blogger and Internet communications strategist, says that the major impact of blogs is that they reach "the eyes of the influentials." Which is to say that blogs are read by such people as news reporters, editors and producers. Blogs (and other online media) are a means of reaching the people who publish newspapers and magazines and produce TV news. An online story can only have real impact if it is picked up by those Old Media outlets, which provide truly mass communication.

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