Can You Compare New Media to Old?

Chuck Klosterman once wrote that the phrase “comparing apples to oranges” to reference the contrast of two different things was dumb because in many ways apples and oranges are actually very similar (small, round fruits). Recently at least two stories have run comparing online video to its traditional media counterparts, but are these accurate comparisons, or do we need to rethink how to correlate new media with the old?

Variety ran a piece yesterday saying that the 160,000 plays Wayne Wang’s feature-length film The Princess of Nebraska attracted on YouTube (the only place, online or off, that it ran) was the equivalent of that movie placing 15th at the box office over the weekend. Curious about that stat, I contacted Ray Price, who spearheads marketing for the film’s distributor Magnolia Pictures, to see where the company was getting that number.
Price’s thinking was that since 150,000 people went to see the independent documentary Religulous this past weekend which was at number 16, Princess’ 160,000 views beat that.

But there are some flaws to that logic. First, Princess was free and available online. If people wanted to see Religulous, they’d have to make a conscious effort to get out of the house and purchase a ticket. Second, 160,000 plays is not the same as 150,000 people buying a ticket to a screening — we don’t know how many unique visitors saw Princess, or even if they watched the entire film.
But Price wasn’t bothered by these issues. “I’m using it as a benchmark,” he said of his comparison. “What I’m trying to do is talk to movie people who really don’t understand the Internet and don’t want to understand the Internet for a variety of reasons.”
Over at AdAge, Michael Learmonth wrote a piece noting how the amount of traffic generated by clips from The Late Show with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live compares to the ratings those shows drew. Letterman’s segment with John McCain was seen by 6.53 million people on TV and more than 5 million online. Fourteen million people tuned in to see Sarah Palin on SNL last weekend, and clips of her appearance have been streamed more than 4 million times on alone. But the television comparison invites the same problems as the movie comparison: TV ratings represent unique viewers; online video just counts the total number of plays.
The issue of comparing new and old media has come up quite a bit lately. Our pal Robert Seidman had plenty to say on the subject of NBC comparing views of its shows across platforms (he likes the fruit metaphor).
It’s no wonder we have a hard time comparing new media and old. The online video industry can’t even come up with its own definition of what constitutes a hit. How can it determine how well it does compared with traditional forms of entertainment?
Comparisons between the two aren’t useless, but ultimately we need to determine which medium is the best way to reach audiences so that advertisers, who fund both old and newteevee, know where to put their money. How about them apples?