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“This is London”
When Edward R. Murrow calmly said those words into a broadcast microphone during the London Blitz at the beginning of World War II, he generated an analog signal that was amplified, sent through a transatlantic cable, and relayed to transmitters that delivered his voice into millions of homes. Broadcast technology itself delivered a world-changing cultural message to a nation well convinced by George Washington’s injunction to resist foreign “entanglements.” Hearing Murrow’s voice made Americans understand that Europe was close by, and so were its wars. Two years later, the United States entered World War II, and for a generation, broadcast technology would take Americans ever deeper into the battlefield, and even onto the surface of the moon. Communication technologies transformed America’s view of itself, its politics, and its culture.

One might have thought that the television industry, with its history of rapid adaptation to technological change, would have become a center of innovation for the next radical transformation in communication. It did not. Nor did the ability to transmit pictures, voices, and stories from around the world to living rooms in the U.S. heartland produce a nation that is more sophisticated about global affairs. Instead, the United States is arguably more isolated and less educated about the world than it was a half-century ago. In a time of such broad technological change, how can this possibly be the case?

In the spring of 2005, after working in television news for 12 years, I was jettisoned from NBC News in one of the company’s downsizings. The work that I and others at Dateline NBC had done–to explore how the Internet might create new opportunities for storytelling, new audiences, and exciting new mechanisms for the creation of journalism–had come to naught. After years of timid experiments, NBC News tacitly declared that it wasn’t interested. The culmination of Dateline’s Internet journalism strategy was the highly rated pile of programming debris called To Catch a Predator. The TCAP formula is to post offers of sex with minors on the Internet and see whether anybody responds. Dateline’s notion of New Media was the technological equivalent of etching “For a good time call Sally” on a men’s room stall and waiting with cameras to see if anybody copied down the number.

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

In the years since my departure from network television, I have acquired a certain detachment about how an institution so central to American culture could shift so quickly to the margins. Going from being a correspondent at Dateline–a rich source of material for The Daily Show–to working at the MIT Media Lab, where most students have no interest in or even knowledge of traditional networks, was a shock. It has given me some hard-won wisdom about the future of journalism, but it is still a mystery to me why television news remains so dissatisfying, so superficial, and so irrelevant. Disappointed veterans like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather blame the moral failure of ratings-obsessed executives, but it’s not that simple. I can say with confidence that Murrow would be outraged not so much by the networks’ greed (Murrow was one of the first news personalities to hire a talent agent) as by the missed opportunity to use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens bent on preserving their freedom and their connections to the broader world.

I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.

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Credit: Sean McCabe

Tagged: Communications

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