Digital electronics is an invisible technology that affects our lives. Chop up electricity into digital bits, and you get something that you can control and manipulate with computers. Some folks think that this is more efficient and cost-effective. Those same folks thought that computers would eliminate the need for paper. The media drink digitalis too, so let's look at how newspapers, TV, and radio are adapting to this brave new world.
The latest digital fad in the newspaper trade is a World Wide Web page, or an electronic version of ink smeared on dead trees. Almost every paper has one. Their motivation is presumably economic. While they're still very prosperous, newspapers don't enjoy the profit margins of yesteryear, mainly due to the rising cost of dead trees and declining circulation among young demographics. Some in the trade say web pages are the way to recapture young readers, but there's not much evidence that this scheme works. Certainly the Web offers new advertising opportunities. I know one newspaper whose front web page is all advertising, a strange mix of 21st century technology with 19th century business practice. But only a handful, like the Wall Street Journal, are valuable enough that web surfers will pay to subscribe. Few publishers brag about the cash flow from electronic versions, probably because it's negative. Most newspapers are in this for cross-promotional benefit and to stake a claim to what might be the future, if we ever run out of trees.
The TV business is going digital because the FCC says so. As I've mentioned before, the US has new TV technical standards to be phased in over the next ten years. All existing TV stations will move to new channels, and the old ones, along with your current TV set, will be obsolete. This is an expensive proposition for everyone involved, and there's no indication that the viewing public considers digital TV an improvement. Even the industry disagrees on how best to use the new digital channels. NBC, owned by General Electric, would like to exploit high definition TV technology. On the other hand, ABC/ Disney and Fox would like four signals on each channel so they can sell more programming. And the FCC still has to jawbone the Cable industry into delivering all this to your living room. So digital TV is on the way - to somewhere. As they say on the X Files, the truth is out there.
Unlike the foregoing media, radio seems to be moving more cautiously into the digital future. Digital Audio Broadcasting, or DAB, has been demonstrated for several years. It gives radio signals the same sound quality as compact discs. Most people probably can't tell the difference between DAB and FM, but most people can't distinguish stereo from mono. In the audio business, however, imagination is part of the mix. The pros call it psychoacoustics. With DAB, even AM radio stations will have a promotable sound. The big dispute so far has been how to transmit it. Early efforts suggested satellites, an efficient, available technology already proven in Europe. But satellite DAB would eliminate existing radio stations, a political impossibility. So the FCC, the radio industry, and equipment designers like Lucent Technologies have negotiated a technological compromise that allows DAB on existing radio channels. Folks will have to buy new radios eventually, but they do so every time they purchase a car or audio system. Even new clock radios are not that expensive. With the enticement of digital audio, selling new radios won't be that big of a task.
From my perspective, the radio industry's go-slow approach is the only digital media scenario whose success is foreseeable.