Michael Kinsley, slow on the uptake

We’re sure you are as fed up with twee milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley as we are. Indeed, which is worse, Kinsley or the beige four-cylinder Oldsmobile he pilots known as Slate?

We had just finished writing about “Famous people acting like established Internet concepts are their own idea” when the selfsame miscreant on whom we trained our gaze does it again!

Yes, we are talking about Michael Kinsley, who has come to the devastatingly original conclusion that almost no one pays for media content. On its face, it is untrue: When was the last time you got into a movie theatre for free? What he really means is that information content tends to be free. (It does not want to be free. It merely tends to be.) Kinsley:

A few weeks ago a producer from Nightline contacted Slate while researching a possible show on the crisis of content on the Internet. He wanted to know how on earth we could ever be a going business if we gave away our content for free. I asked how many people pay to watch Nightline. Answer: None. People pay for their cable or satellite hookup, and they pay for content on HBO, but Nightline and other broadcast programs thrive without a penny directly from viewers.... Nightline itself disproves the notion that giving away content is inherently suicidal. Now, consider newspapers. Customers do pay, but they’re not really paying for the news: They’re paying for the paper.

...and so on, on and on and on, pounding the spike into the rail tie with endless little mincing, wheezy taps of Liberace’s ball-peen hammer, like the yapping of a toy Peke.

Never mind “When will Jakob Nielsen shut up?” The question is “When will Michael Kinsley shut up?”

More to the point, when will he stop rewriting our ideas?

In Canada, television used to be free – after you bought a set.... In the ’80s, cable television came along. You were then given the option of paying for the technical infrastructure to receive free television programming your antenna could not otherwise pick up. Later, specialty channels were devised, funded in part by a levy on your cable bill. And everyone knows about premium channels, which you pay for because you specifically want the content.... When content-rich sites like APBNews and Salon bleed, we skip to the wrong conclusion: That there is no sustainable economic model for online content, only services and transactions.

But there was no model for paying for otherwise-free TV signals, either. Cable companies invented it, and eventually nearly everyone signed on, willingly. What no one has figured out yet is a next step in online evolution analogous to the jump from antenna reception to cable TV. Imagine that cable TV had gone over like a lead balloon, with cable operators tanking left and right. Would we have shut down television stations in response?

Of course, we now have a televisual reality distortion field at work. In the olden days, nothing was real until it got on TV. Now nothing is real until either Salon or Slate bothers to write about it.

But we don’t want to sound bitter.

Posted on 2001-05-21