Television has had a pretty good run as the main driver of public opinion — but events of the past few months make me wonder if it’s finally beginning to cede that position to the Internet.
There are Internetists who will say, what do you mean, “finally?” But as recently as 2012, it was television — through the debates, TV ads and cable news supercoverage — that drove the presidential election and other public debate.
TV’s role as the most influential medium in America began in 1960 with the Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960, which swung the presidential election to JFK, and persisted for more than 50 years. TV had video — moving pictures of people lying, crying, or dying — and the power of video cannot be understated.
It was television that eroded public support for the Vietnam War. It was “60 Minutes” that brought down companies and errant business executives. And it was the obsessions of the cable news networks over the past decades that drove public discourse and contributed to the stalemates in Washington.
The Internet has displayed video for a long time, but the extreme pervasiveness of social media has finally broken television’s near-monopoly on small-screen moving images. These days a video on YouTube or TMZ can be viewed by more people than on the evening news. And sometimes a video that is too gruesome to be shown on TV can still be viewed by millions online, creating a whole new outlet for videos that people would never have seen before.
A case in point: the videos of ISIS militants beheading American journalists — which, being too repugnant for television, were primarily transmitted by the Internet. ISIS had been rampaging across the Middle East committing atrocity after atrocity with limited American response, but the videos of the beheadings finally pushed the U.S. over the edge toward developing a strategy to roll back ISIS’ gains.
Then there’s the case of Ray Rice, the NFL player who last winter knocked out his then-fiancé during an argument. Initially the NFL suspended him for two games, but that was extended to six games when a video of Rice dragging the unconscious woman out of an elevator surfaced. And when lo and behold a second video materialized showing the actual knockout blow, the NFL suspended him indefinitely. Which leads a cynic to conclude that he wasn’t suspended for beating a woman unconscious, but for doing so in front of a video camera.
In any event, the Ray Rice videos were surfaced not by “60 Minutes,” the NBC Nightly News, or ESPN, but by the Internet gossip site TMZ. The videos were then dispersed by social media and other Internet sites, leaving TV to play catch-up. And while it’s true that many TV networks ran the videos on air and continue to discuss them ad nauseam, Rice’s behavior would not have been an issue at all without the Internet.
Do two high-profile news events make a trend? Maybe not, but the ISIS beheadings and Ray Rice videos seem to signal an important inflection point. Since the creation of the Internet, the video part of online world has existed in large part to amplify and promote what’s on TV. Cat videos and laughing babies aside, many of the most-watched videos have been TV clips that either deliberately created promotional buzz for a show or provided unintentional hilarity through flubs, miscues and whatnot. But now the Internet is more in the driver’s seat. Increasingly, many of the nation’s news and entertainment originates in the online world, with TV amplifying what the online world has already seen and reacted to.
This is not to suggest that TV is going anywhere. According to Nielsen’s Cross-Platform Report, Americans still spend 25 times as much time watching video on television as they do online. And traditional TV will continue to be the source of most video entertainment for a long time. But the Internet seems finally to have become the primary vehicle for shaping public opinion, wresting that role from television, just as TV wrested it away from newspapers 50 years ago.