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Blow Up the Box

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Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) was one of the films in Barry Diller’s pioneering “Movie of the Week” franchise on ABC.  

Diller claims he’s not spoiling for a fight. Nevertheless, as he sits in this elegant room today, in front of a tin of pencils with points like daggers, so freshly shaved that the smell of wood lingers in the room, the atmosphere is not calm. He takes a plain wedding band off his finger and plays with it on a desk, spinning it between his thumb and forefinger like a dreidel. The sun isn’t in his eyes, but mine start to water. I think about what a friend once told me about talking to Diller in this room. “You’re sitting there looking at Barry, and you’re melting, man,” he said. “You’re melting.”

Diller: All right, what are we doing here?

We’re doing an interview for our TV issue, and the theme is “experimentation.” So you’d be the one to talk to about that.

I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.

We want to talk about the evolution of TV. At every stage, somebody seems to come in and bust up the paradigm, and you’ve been at the forefront many times. What is this moment?

That’s a question?

The question is, “What is this moment compared to—”

Okay. Well, this moment is about how, for the very first time, there’s an alternative distribution method for TV. And it just happens that that distribution method is the most radical transformation of everything we see, we hear, and we know. Certainly in the last 100 years. Maybe the invention of the telegraph compares.

We are just getting broadband deployed in this country in a way that you can move rich pictures and video through the Internet and have the ability to slap it up to either a big screen or an iPad. And yet, although there’s so many Internet-ready TVs now being manufactured, relatively few people actually receive video over the Internet on big-screen televisions.

I guess what my first question was about—

I didn’t answer? What have I been doing here?

Well, I was trying to also ask you to put this moment in historical context with other radical moments, like when you created the fourth network.

The fourth network expanded choices, but we went from three to four, right? And now we clock in the hundreds of viewing choices. So going from three to four back then was better than not, and maybe you wouldn’t have gone to fifth, though I’m not sure that’s true. Getting Fox launched was a big, crazy, great effort.

What were you fighting against?

All the other major studios were against us, all the producers were against us, all the networks were against us, the advertisers didn’t have very much interest in us, because why would they? So it was like anything. In establishing something that wasn’t, it’s a bitch. But it’s a good bitch.

Who were your allies?

We had people who began to bring us programming that we thought was interesting, and that’s all we needed, that and an awful lot of willfulness, which is what it takes to do anything.

It’s been said that the TV business is like a medieval guild system. Was it like that from the time you started, or has it gotten more and more entrenched?

What do you mean? Who has said this? I’ve never heard that, a medieval guild system?

It’s a line from Public Knowledge’s Tomorrowvision policy paper, which has been passed around among V.C.’s and web entrepreneurs a lot recently.

Yes, you’re right, it actually was. I thought that was a good piece. I don’t quite know what they meant, but it was nice flowery words.

There’s no sense to it, though?

Well, if you go back, not to the very beginning of broadcasting, as Tim Wu has written, when there were thousands of programmers with little radio stations, but soon after, it’s true that the forces, medieval or not, did coalesce. Broadcasting began, essentially, in the hands of very, very few players—actually two—and when television came along, there were two networks, then three. Rules began to get formulated that essentially protected that concentrated group.

Ricky Van Veen of CollegeHumor once told me that you’re only focused on the future, on new ways of doing things. Do you feel any guilt for being part of that old system?

Why would I? Since I was in my early twenties, at ABC, I was always only interested in things that were not already being done. That’s why we invented the mini­series. We thought that books didn’t always need to be movies. We said, “Television allows you to do something completely different. Let’s take Shogun, and you can make 25 of them, or Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and make 40 hours.” Everybody said, “Hopeless,” “will fail,” et cetera. And it was success from the first hour. My curiosity is only about things that don’t have a record.


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