Media Is Changing, But Some Things Endure

The Apple iPhone
Apple's iPhone is unveiled at a press conference in central London, 18 September 2007. generic
AFP/Getty Images

The following commentary is written by senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

When Sunday Morning marked its 25th anniversary, I was invited back to survey how the media landscape had changed. When this broadcast was born in 1979, I noted, there was no cable news, no abundance of cable channels, no C-SPAN. There were some reasonably big changes, of course.

But what has happened in the last five years can't even be captured by the word "change" - it is as if the most fundamental laws of the media universe have been overthrown.

Sure, some changes count as "more of the same." The big three networks, which divided 90 percent of the primetime audience 30 years ago, now divide about 30 percent, but they are still the dominant players in primetime.

And the major alternatives - basic cable channels like Lifetime, ESPN for sports, HBO for pay-cable alternatives - are thriving.

But where the last five years have brought a revolution is how information and entertainment is delivered, and where.

Five years ago, MySpace was the barest glimmer of an idea for a social networking site in Los Angeles; it's now a worldwide presence, with well over 120 million visitors a month.

Facebook didn't even exist five years ago. It now draws more than 200 million visitors.

Ask anyone about YouTube before 2005 and they'd have thought you were talking about an ointment. By last fall, it was drawing a hundred million viewers a month. Every minute, ten hours of videos are posted, ranging from news, sports, and entertainment clips to original creations. If you want to see what Mentos and Diet Coke can create in combination, YouTube provides the answer - dozens of them.

Well, okay, just more sources of media, right?

No. What these and countless other examples represent is a sea change that has upended all of our assumptions about how media are delivered. Today, everything we see and hear and read is "digitized" - a product of those countless "1's" and "0's'." And that, in turn, means that, as far as technology is concerned, it's all the same - print, audio, video, no difference. So what?

Here's what: Once upon a time - say, when Sunday Morning was born - every kind of information came in a different form. If you read mail, it came in an envelope. If you wanted to listen to news, you had to buy a radio. If you wanted to play music at home, you needed a phonograph and records. You wanted to read a newspaper? You needed the paper. A movie? That was a trip to the theatre, or a VCR. A phone call away from home? A pay phone. Write a report? Get a typewriter, and find a copier and a mailbox to send it around the world.

Now (to use the buzz word) "convergence" is here. Every conceivable kind of information - "information" in the broadest sense - comes to us on a raft of devices. Take the iPhone, which can be a newspaper, a TV screen, a camera, a theatre, a file cabinet, a radio, a Walkman, Yellow Pages, an edit room, and a travel agency.

And at root, this revolution has shifted massive amounts of power away from the providers to the users of information. You don't want to watch a program when it's on? Hey, it's always on somewhere. You like one song, but not an album? iTunes will oblige. You don't want to buy a newspaper? Read it for free (one reason why newspapers as we know them may not be around much longer).

Which raises this heretical thought: Whether on a TV screen or computer or cell phone or toaster, the fundamental things still apply (or should). A love of story-telling, a love of clear, vivid language, a respect for history - the world didn't start five years ago, even if YouTube did - these still matter most.

Which may be one big reason why 30 years on, this broadcast endures.