Internet vs. Television
–Excerpted from PR Watch, “A Dumbed Down Version of the Internet,” 2Q 2001

Obviously, no one who criticizes television can unreservedly embrace the Internet. One cathode ray tube can be as bad as another and there are many users wasting their lives in chat rooms who should be out chatting (face to face) with real people. But the Internet has, to some extent, managed to threaten television. It has put a glossy new front end on the old idea of human contact, and made people wonder why they should have to spend so much time watching commercials. It reminds them that they can do better than TVs lifestyle of risk-free entertainment.

Open access: Like the cheap, hand printed leaflets of the 18th century, the Internet has given anyone with an opinion or a story their chance to be heard. High distribution costs no longer stack the deck against a single author or small group.

Less censorship: The structure of the Internet was originally designed by the U.S. military to withstand nuclear attack by operating without any central control. Governments have had a difficult time trying to limit access to such a system, and have sometimes just given up.

No programming: Unlike a TV viewer, an Internet user logs on, gets what he or she wants and leaves. The user is not tied to a schedule. This arrangement is sometimes referred to as “pull technology,” and people like it. Advertisers are less happy.

E-commerce: The Internet has the potential to break open national economies, providing small businesses with the same sales and distribution network as huge multinational corporations.

Text based: Even with better and better pictures, and the advent of sound files, animation and mini-cams, the Internet has revived popular excitement about reading and writing. Just when we were told they were obsolete, we can again feel the power and living importance of words.

Communication: If you want to exchange messages with people all over the world, you need to have something to say. You must have a personality robust enough and resourceful enough to reach out to them. You have to care enough about subjects to converse about them. TV has always shielded us from those requirements. The Internet challenges its users to rediscover them.

This is real interaction, not just pushing buttons, but using the buttons to meet human beings. And it makes television look bad.

The television industry’s response has been predictable. They bought, and continue to buy up, the Internet portals: those search engines and home pages where people go first. These immediately became more TV-like and, as much as possible, promote the kind of leisure “surfing” that fits in with television. The portals now promote television brands and programs using the familiar words “Tonight only!” or “Don’t miss it!”

Digital interactive television is meant to satiate viewers’ desire to join the digital age, while reassuring them that there is nothing new at all – just better commercials. As one advertising manager admits, “The endgame is to create a more profitable platform than the Internet.”

(It seems) we are all about to take the next step, as computers move from observing (Nielsen) households to observing individuals.

Sidebar: A note on televisionAnonymous

In some way or another we come to believe the fictional things we see on television. We are increasingly bombarded by countless “perfect” body images which in turn have made virtually all women and many men ashamed of their bodies. Women on television are mostly portrayed in subsidiary roles and depicted as less capable, effective or interesting. Television often minimizes our interactions between families, friends and communities. It is addicting. It becomes a way of life, preempting our experience and taking over our brains, providing us with a prefabricated understanding of what the world is supposed to be. Without television, we could focus on making ourselves better people, and making the world a better place.