And The Winner Is … Network Television!

Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman in history to win an Academy Award for Best Director! From race car driver Danica Patrick to high school football coach Natalie Randolph, and now to Ms. Bigelow, American women have repeatedly shattered glass ceilings during the past two years.

But did you actually watch ABC’s televised network coverage of Kathryn’s historic acceptance speech? Conventional wisdom would predict that you didn’t bother to do so. Instead, you might have learned about her victory through some new media channel.

Readers are turning away from newspapers, for instance, and are using RSS feeds to focus on narrow self-defined topics. And viewers are ignoring the prime time schedules of their favorite networks, instead opting to watch specific episodes that appeal to them on web sites like Hulu, as well as niche cable channels like Food Network.

Conventional Wisdom Beware!

This is indeed the conventional wisdom … but is it true? Are new media outlets truly replacing traditional forms of communication?

Let’s consider the newspaper industry. On the one hand, circulation statistics have been falling for years, and papers in cities as large as Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle have indeed folded. But have you noticed some promising developments at the New York Times? Its web site is now attracting more than 20 million unique visitors each month, and it has publicly announced plans to start charging for access next year.

Furthermore, it has created a global online edition for international readers, and it is developing a special multimedia edition for Apple’s new iPad device. These initiatives are helping the Times reach readers who never could have subscribed to traditional delivery services.

And strangely enough, live network television events from the Super Bowl to the Olympics to the Academy Awards have all recently enjoyed surges in viewership levels. Public interest in these events has reached such heights, in fact, that ABC’s parent company Disney successfully wrestled better contractual terms from cable provider Cablevision by threatening to black out ABC’s live Oscar broadcast on that cable service. Viewers actually missed the first fourteen minutes of the Awards telecast before Cablevision relented and ABC restored the transmission.

So a venerable media company like Disney actually used consumer demand for traditional network television coverage of a decades old Hollywood awards show to help it negotiate a better deal with a cable television provider! How could this have occurred when conventional wisdom is stating that demand for traditional media is waning?

Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

Disney itself has a long history of supporting traditional entertainment media outlets at times when competitors and customers appear to have abandoned them. In the early 1990s, for instance, it committed to renovating New York City’s historic New Amsterdam Theater, which was built in 1903 and later served as the home of the famed vaudeville variety show Ziegfield Follies.

At the time, many commentators were astonished by Disney’s desire to commit corporate funds to the restoration of a decrepit relic of a bygone theatrical age, located on the seedy side of 42nd Street. But Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner believed that audiences would always be drawn to engaging stories presented in traditional mass media outlets, and thus spotted a business opportunity in an ancient format that first engaged audiences several millennia ago, i.e. live theater. And today, global tourists come and meet those dancing feet at live theaters throughout 42nd Street and Times Square.

Likewise, a few months ago, Disney again astonished commentators by releasing an animated film called The Princess and the Frog, utilizing the obsolete two dimensional hand drawn technology that they first employed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Although Disney itself discontinued that technology and committed to computer graphics animation when it bought Pixar in 2006, Disney’s now-CEO Robert Iger (like Eisner before him) believes that audiences would always be drawn to compelling tales in traditional formats; he thus resurrected Disney’s fabled hand drawn animation unit. And his instincts were proven correct when The Princess and the Frog soared to the top of the box office listings during the peak holiday season.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Of course, it is important to note that Disney is also extremely active in the world of new media. For instance, its ESPN family of cable television networks dominates the fields of sports news and entertainment. Likewise, its virtual reality web services – like Club Penguin, for instance – are competing ferociously in the race to develop the next generation of interactive online social media services.

But for each pair of steps that Disney takes forward into the future of media news and entertainment, it takes a step back into the media outlets of the past, reflecting its belief that audiences will continue to desire both types of services. That’s why you might have joined millions of other Americans to watch Kathryn Bigelow accept her Oscar last week, and why the conventional wisdom about the demise of traditional media outlets is proving to be premature.