People have been talking about internet television for a while now. But Google and Yahoo’s unveiling of their new video search and subscription services last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas seemed to make it real.
Sifting through the predictions and prophecies that subsequently poured forth, I stumbled on something sort of interesting — a small concrete discovery that helped put some of this in perspective. Over the weekend, Slate Magazine quietly announced its partnership with “meaningoflife.tv,” a web-based interview series hosted by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal, dealing with big questions at the perilous intersection of science and religion.
Launched last fall (presumably in response to the intelligent design fracas), meaningoflife.tv is a web page featuring a playlist of video interviews with an intriguing roster of “cosmic thinkers” — philosophers, scientists and religious types — on such topics as “Direction in evolution,” “Limits in science,” and “The Godhead.”
This is just one of several experiments in which Slate is fiddling with its text-to-media ratio. Today’s Pictures, a collaboration with Magnum Photos, presents a daily gallery of images and audio-photo essays, recalling both the heyday of long-form photojournalism and a possible future of hybrid documentary forms. One problem is that it’s not terribly easy to find these projects on Slate’s site. The Magnum page has an ad tucked discretely on the sidebar, but meaningoflife.tv seems to have disappeared from the front page after a brief splash this weekend. For a born-digital publication that has always thought of itself in terms of the web, Slate still suffers from a pretty appalling design, with its small headline area capping a more or less undifferentiated stream of headlines and teasers.
Still, I’m intrigued by these collaborations, especially in light of the forecast TV-net convergence. While internet TV seems to promise fragmentation, these projects provide a comforting dose of coherence — a strong editorial hand and a conscious effort to grapple with big ideas and issues, like the reassuringly nutritious programming of PBS or the BBC. It’s interesting to see text-based publications moving now into the realm of television. As Tivo, on demand, and now, the internet atomize TV beyond recognition, perhaps magazines and newspapers will fill part of the void left by channels.
Limited as it may now seem, traditional broadcast TV can provide us with valuable cultural touchstones, common frames of reference that help us speak a common language about our culture. That’s one thing I worry we’ll lose as the net blows broadcast media apart. Then again, even in the age of five gazillion cable channels, we still have our water-cooler shows, our mega-hits, our television “events.” And we’ll probably have them on the internet too, even when “by appointment” television is long gone. We’ll just have more choice regarding where, when and how we get at them. Perhaps the difference is that in an age of fragmentation, we view these touchstone programs with a mildly ironic awareness of their mainstream status, through the multiple lenses of our more idiosyncratic and infinitely gratified niche affiliations. They are islands of commonality in seas of specialization. And maybe that makes them all the more refreshing. Shows like “24,” “American Idol,” or a Ken Burns documentary, or major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics that draw us like prairie dogs out of our niches. Coming up for air from deep submersion in our self-tailored, optional worlds.