Doing Radio on TV

Every disruptive media technology goes through a phase where its proponents really don’t understand its applications or potential — but use it anyway. Invariably, they do what they’ve always done with their familiar medium, and hope that somehow it will work in the new.

They’re usually wrong. Early TV shows featured former radio dramas and comedies with actors in front of microphones. The fact that it was done in front of a camera added nothing. It took a while for people to realize that this was really a new medium, not just a new way of doing radio with cameras.

The problem is not a new one. Gutenberg’s cast metal type was deliberately manufactured to emulate its hand-lettered predecessor. Ebook readers are engineered to simulate the turning of a physical page — for no reason other than the habits and expectations of traditional users. Smartphone and tablet video is presented as if the device was simply a smaller TV set. The list goes on. The history of today’s new media will be filled with quaint-sounding attempts to “do radio on TV,” rather than invent new, technology-specific ways to tell a story.

Media forms evolve from the technology that generates them — and from the way humans interact with those devices. I don’t know precisely what the ideal content medium is for, let’s say, a wearable digital device. It may contain elements of old media: a text message, an image, an interactive video, an e-commerce link, a 911 call (for when you walk into a wall while accessing the content). But the sum of that new medium will certainly be greater than any of its parts, and will be its own unique and challenging medium.

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