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There’s always a new act waiting in the wings

New tech toys only the latest threat to older media forms

Everyone in Hollywood wonders how the so-called new media will affect traditional producers and distributors.

Will moviehouses become obsolete? Will TV networks go bankrupt? How naive, breathless or just plain shortsighted might our coverage of iPods and Xboxes seem 50 years from now?

So far, Variety has largely taken the view that old media will have to change with the times — but that its lock on content and entertainment savvy will stand it in good stead.

It’s not the first time such questions have been asked.

Consider the changing list of businesses the paper has covered over the last 100 years.

In 1906, the covers of the paper featured ribbons around columns hailing vaudeville, circuses, parks, burlesque, minstrels and fairs — all of which eventually morphed or disappeared altogether. (By “parks,” the paper meant concerts in gazebos and such, not the theme parks of today.)

By 1916 the paper had refined its focus, hailing on the front page vaudeville, legitimate and the fledgling business of moving pictures. A front-page story that April heralded “a flood of big film features for the coming summer season” and discussed how they might impact other forms of entertainment.

Flash forward another 10 years: The paper’s banner headline, “Radio Czar May Be Named,” topped a front-page story hailing “the first ad in Variety by a radio announcer” — one Edward Husing of WCA in Washington. There was also — perhaps not unrelated — a prescient story about why vaudeville acts seemed to be waning.

The paper in the 1920s also widened its scope to take in music, cabaret and a category called “outdoors,” which included fairs, carnivals, circuses, rodeos, sports, exhibitions and almost any other event where folks got together to have fun — and paid for the privilege.

By 1936 the three major sections indicated on the front of the paper were radio, screen and stage. Tellingly, a short front-page story datelined London hinted at something newfangled:

“Coronation in ’37 over television?” headlined a story that read in part: “Statement has been made publicly that the coronation of King Edward VIII next May or June 1937 is to be televised via the British Broadcasting Corp. Statement is regarded here as so much ha ha.”

But the smallscreen eventually became no laughing matter, catching on bigtime after WWII.

Said the paper on May 1, 1946: “Despite the fact that many believe television won’t get rolling as one of the major facets of showbiz until many years hence, sponsors are already realizing necessity of grabbing up ‘cream time’ segments.”

The film biz, however, was not as thrilled with TV as advertisers were. Headline after headline in the ’50s attested to moves by studios and producers first to ignore, then to co-opt, and finally to co-exist with the TV biz.

Longtime editor Abel Green, penning the introduction to the paper’s 514-page 50th-anni issue on Jan. 4, 1956, put it this way:

“Technological unemployment overtook hundreds of vaudeville acts when the old circuits expired, but vaudeville in other forms continues today, highlighted by the great television vaudecasts and the big floor shows of the cafes. Broadway’s own legit has been called ‘a fabulous invalid,’ forever counted out yet always coming back. The moral seems clear enough. Amusement forms may be modified, but the essentials endure, although it is true that minstrel shows and showboats, both American inventions, are picturesquely has-been.”

Green’s conclusion at mid-century is probably as apt today as it was then. Just substitute “digital spectrum” for “amplitude modulation,” and so on:

“Celluloid, amplitude modulation and electronics not to mention trains and planes altered entertainment. But no matter how many changes of form, or even of personnel, the show is still the thing. All the gadgetry and wizardry will never or can ever replace talent. That goes for the performer, the playwright, the producer.”

(For other articles in this series, see http://www.variety.com/alookback.)

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