It is the TV, not digital, revolution

New York - Mr Rupert Murdoch recently appointed his son James chief executive of 21st Century Fox, prompting the obvious question: How can a guy whose main credential is a silver spoon compete with Silicon Valley's meritocratic entrepreneurs?

I suggested that disconnect in a testy interview with Mr James Murdoch several years ago when he was running his father's satellite broadcasting company, BSkyB. "You must be incredibly stupid," he said. "Look around you, man. It's television!"

Supremely confident that the Murdochs were old-media toast, I looked around and it was perplexing that BSkyB had, despite the Internet, become a colossus in Europe.

No matter the skyrocket valuations of digital companies, people still spent more time watching TV than they did on the Internet, and more time on the Internet was spent watching TV.

Indeed, the period since my conversation with Mr Murdoch has been one of the biggest growth periods in the history of television.

Online-media revolutionaries once figured they could steal TV's business model - more free content, more advertising.

Online media is now drowning in free. Google and Facebook control the traffic stream and set advertising rates. Their phenomenal traffic growth has glutted the advertisement market, forcing down rates. Digital publishers can stay ahead only by chasing more traffic, not loyal readers, but millions of passing eyeballs, so fleeting that advertisers pay less and less for them.

The TV industry has been starting a new life built on fees from cable providers and credit-card debits from consumers. Half of broadcast and cable's income is non-advertising based and since adult household members pay the cable bills, TV has to have grown-up content: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Good Wife.

TV figured out how to monetise stature and influence. Nobody knows how many people saw House Of Cards and nobody cares. Mass-market TV upgraded to class, while digital media - saccharine viral videos - chased lowbrow mass.

How did TV seize back the crown? With old- fashioned businessmen in charge. When YouTube threatened to become a TV piracy site, Viacom's 84-year-old Sumner Redstone, dragged Google, YouTube's owner, into a painful spiral of litigation. He turned YouTube from pirater to licenser and made Google his customer.

TV is mastering the model of the future: Make a product they will pay for. BuzzFeed has only its traffic to sell and can sell it only once. TV shows can be sold again and again, with streaming now a third leg to broadcast and cable, offering a vast new market for licensing and syndication.

Streaming video is now not only the hottest media draw but many of its creators are getting paid.

Well-produced narrative video entertainment is so profitable that digital media - frustrated by tumbling ad rates and rising traffic demands - wants to be streaming premium video (that is, television). Yahoo just cut its first big sports deal. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says his company's future is video. BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post have announced new TV plans.

The recipe for media success is the same as it used to be - a premium product that people pay attention to and pay money for.

In 2014, Mr Rupert Murdoch, at his son James' urging, made a bid to buy Time Warner, quite clearly the opening shot in a battle that now involves major content owners, the cable Goliaths and the digital platforms.

It is not the digital revolution. Mr James Murdoch is right. Look around you man, it is the TV revolution!

New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe