The Internet? What channel is that on?

It’s hard to imagine an example that sums up the conflicting ambitions and tensions within the TV business better than the latest announcement about Gossip Girl, the show that appears on the CW network (co-owned by CBS and Warner Brothers). The news from the network is that fans will no longer be able to watch episodes online, as they have been since it started airing last fall. Instead, CW would like viewers of the show — which is all about a girl and her blog, and was effectively created in part to piggyback on the online habits of its target audience — to watch it only on television.

That’s ironic enough, of course — a show that’s all about how young people are turning to the Web and social media, but you can’t watch it online. The reasoning behind the decision is even more illuminating, however: in effect, the network is saying that the show has become too popular with fans online, and they would like to shift some of those eyeballs to the tube instead. Why? Because that’s where the advertisers are. Advertising on TV still brings in far more revenue per viewer than online, and CW needs to build up the former at the expense of the latter.

In reality, of course, the network may end up irritating the core group of viewers — many of whom enjoy the freedom of watching a stream online whenever they want — and the show could go down the drain regardless.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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