Yes, the web and mobile apps are like TV shows (and magazines)

Over the weekend, the smart and successful VC Fred Wilson used the metaphor of TV shows vs. TV networks to suggest that investors (and the rest of us) sometime (often?) confuse the significance of various kinds of web-based startups.

Anyone who has used the internet for more than five years should immediately recognize what he’s suggesting. Some things we believe will define the future — that are so disruptive they will do away with institutions that have been in place for centuries — turn out to be I Love Lucy or MySpace.

If I were to debate this topic (and I’m not), my position would be this: In this metaphor TV is “the internet.” Everything else is a TV show.

In 2008, I wrote a post that applied the TV vs. TV show metaphor to magazines.  Magazines start, magazines die, was my point. Don’t confuse a magazine’s death with the death of magazines. (I have reposted it in full at the bottom of this page.)

It’s a part of a continuous theme of this blog: There is technology (or a communications medium) and there are things that one can do with that technology (or medium). When we start suggesting that a business model is the same as the technology that enables it, we head down a path of confusing TV shows with TV networks.

As Fred knows, there is lots of money to be made from investing in internet companies that seem like TV networks, but are merely TV shows. They can be massively successful as investments (again, as he has repeatedly demonstrated). But only time will tell us if Google, or Facebook, or Twitter are today’s I Love Lucy.

But come to think of it, TV as it was when I Love Lucy first aired, is hardly around anymore.

Here is what I wrote, in full, on that post dated November 2, 2008 and titled, “Magazines start, magazines die.”:

In this week’s Advertising Age, there is an article with the headline, “Will Print Survive the Next Five Years? ” And while the author of the piece provides either/or scenarios of how the current down-market will play out, the most graphic scenario (as the headline suggests) is a Print Apocalypse where advertisers leave magazines for the web, and never return.

I have a suggestion for the author of the article.

Get Advertising Age’s president and editor-in-chief Rance Crain to tell you the story of how Advertising Age got started. He’s told me the story — and I was spellbound.

Make sure you get the specifics of the dates, times and context of its creation. You will hear about a trade publication that was created a few months after the stock market crash of 1929. That’s right, after . You’ll hear about a trade publication startup whose formative years occurred during an economic Depression in which one-out-of-four Americans was unemployed.

It is a story of audacity and passion — and creative financing.

It is a story set in a time when economists and writers were suggesting capitalism itself could soon be dead. But despite that context and those fears, it’s a story about a man who started a publication about the ball-bearings of capitalism — advertising.

But yes, magazines do die

As much Kool-Ade as I drink and serve about social media and web marketing, I am less-and-less convinced by the death-of-print crowd. Again, listen: certain publications will die. I’ve pulled the plug on some, myself. No doubt, I will again in the future.

But I’m talking about the medium , not a specific magazine title — or even category.

You know how every season on network and cable TV, there are new shows premiered and other shows cancelled. Of course you know that. That’s because you’ve experienced it every year of your entire life. On TV, they even celebrate the new (without mentioning the death of the show it replaces). Just because series get cancelled, would you ever see an article suggesting network and cable TV are going to die in five years? Even if a network dies or — as they do — a cable network bombs, would you see an article suggesting the entire medium of TV is going to soon be dead? Heck, what will we do with all those flat screen TVs we’re buying if that happens?

As I have written on this blog continuously for the past eight years, the same thing happens with magazines. Magazines get started. Magazines die. It’s the whole circle of life thing. But for some reason, those who should know better confuse the closure of a magazine with the end of an entire medium.

As much as I personally do not include print newspapers in my life, even I don’t think they’re going to completely die. Become something else, yes. But die? As for magazines, I’ve said here for a long time, news weeklies and a great number of mass-marketed magazines will die — as they have done since the beginning of magazine time. And magazines like TV Guide (the listings part) will die. And trade publications that focus on breaking news and the transactions of their industry — like Advertising Age, for example — will find that the web is a better medium than print. Some day — and I think it will be a long time from now — Advertising Age may even be a web-based only product. But I’ll bet it won’t be in the next five years.

But even as those magazines die, new, tightly focused and well produced magazines will fill the vacuum created by the departure of such publications. Next season, there will be new titles on the newsstand — or sent to you by your association, employer, favorite cause, etc.

Don’t believe me?

The Advertising Age piece was inspired by lay-offs in the print media world last week. (Note to writer: There were layoffs in every industry last week.) But guess what? In the past few weeks, 52 new magazines have been started according to Samir Husni, Mr. Magazine. And that’s up from 36 starts during the same period last year.

Some won’t make it into their second year. Just like on TV.

  • Fred started a very stimulating conversation that’s for sure!

    But sometimes things that are TV shows have features which are sucked down into the medium. It’s how there’s a continuity between the TV of Lucy and the TV of Linsanity (which is thoroughly captivating TV, even though Lin himself has been sidelined). The platform is shifting and adopting features from its programming.

    Podcasting, RSS, blogging, YouTube, I would argue Twitter — all become part of what the Internet is, but they started out as programming.

    Look at how magazines as a platform have changed. It used to be a gatekeeper model. Now lists like Time’s 100 most influential are revealing because they have become such jokes, such anachronisms. Why did we ever care who influenced the editors of Time? Becuase that was the only path to fame. Now it’s not even that and there are so many other paths to fame.

  • Thanks Dave. Great points. In a longer version of this that I decided to save for another day, there are things similar to what you mention that become part of TV — I was thinking of the connections between sports TV programming and how that has turned sports into what they are. TV and the NFL — when does one start and the other stop? I feel like there should be a quote by Marshall MacLuhan in here somewhere. ;  )