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Memory Lane - Substitute This!

Wed, 06/30/2010 - 8:25pm
Stewart Schley, Media & Technology Writer, Denver, Colo.

Oddly enough, 60 years after TV's invasion,
radio and movie theaters are alive, and even fl ourishing

In the early 1950s, as it began to become apparent that a new medium called television was going to stick around awhile, movie theater owners and radio station operators came to the same conclusion: They were doomed.

2010-StewartSchleyOn the radio side, the hand-wringing revolved around an obvious question: What thinking person would possibly choose to listen to radio when moving images were now available on television? True, the so-called Golden Years of the early 1940s had been marvelous for the medium as a war-weary nation turned on the radio in the evening to listen to comedy shows, thrillers and variety programs. (One eponymous program was even titled “Escape.”) By the end of WWII, 95 percent of U.S. homes had at least one radio. But the encroachment of television into the American living room, with its Berles and Allens and Godfreys, quickly stole away the audience for entertainment and, it seemed to radio industry figures at the time, was certain to make the entire medium extinct.

Movie theater owners had their concerns about television, too. Their lock on delivering pre-recorded visual entertainment – a unique value proposition that had filled palatial theaters with movie-goers since the 1920s – suddenly was eroded by a medium that offered a convenience they couldn’t counter. The darn thing was right there in the house.

That was bad enough, but theater owners were especially outraged when television providers began to experiment with ways to deliver movies, bypassing theaters entirely. When a unit of Paramount Pictures began a trial of an early pay-per-view movie system in southern California in the 1950s, theater owners all but rioted in the streets, eventually mustering enough political clout to convince California lawmakers to outlaw the renegade delivery system. Yet television seemed bound and determined to kill off the movie-going habit. In the 1970s, a new pay-TV service called HBO brashly featured a theater-style marquee graphic to introduce its feature films. If that wasn’t enough, some meddling electronics companies began to sell Americans on home video systems around the same time, allowing consumers to spend just a few bucks to rent copies of movies for viewing at home. Again, predictions of the theater’s demise rang out. And now, there’s new disruption posed by video-on-demand and iTunes downloads.

Oddly enough, though, some 60 years after television’s invasion began, both radio and movie theaters are alive, and even flourishing in some respects. North American movie box office receipts rose to a record $10 billion last year as theaters rode the new momentum of 3-D exhibition. Radio lacks a similar rosy economic story – revenues are down 33 percent from 2005 – but that’s a function of a lousy advertising market more so than an abandonment of the medium. Listenership actually remains strong, and after weathering challenges from television, the Internet and satellite radio competitors, radio remains an influential cultural force, informing much of the nation’s political debate.

What gives? Why were the gloomy predictions of early era industry figures so completely wrong, and how did two mediums survive what seemed to be serious challenges to their very existence?

Media historians point to the radio and theater experiences as evidence that only rarely does one medium supplant another. Yes, VHS killed off Sony’s Betamax, but that was an example of a particular technology winning a standards battle, rather than offing an entire category. And although magazines and newspapers seem to be in danger of disappearing, they’re instead really making a transition – scary though it may be – to a different delivery platform. But readers and written information aren’t going away.

But the truth is that mediums with well-defined roles find ways to survive, and historically, technology-powered alternatives tend to expand categories rather than vanquish incumbents. Technology has been an empowering force, not a corrosive force, for major media categories. Today’s Pandora is yesterday’s RCA – a powerful, scaled platform for delivering audio content. 3-D has been an enormous positive for theaters, just as the introduction of Technicolor was.

Television struggles to deal with technology-fueled disruptors, too. The current fear in the multichannel video sector is “cord-cutting,” or the substitution of Internet video sources for subscription TV services. But in truth, a rogue breed of Internet video providers appears to be expanding the boundaries of television consumption more so than displacing incumbents. Even as Internet video gains steam, U.S. multichannel video subscriptions have risen to an all-time high, and so have cable industry revenues. The theater guys from the 1940s could have told you that would happen.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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