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Blow Up the Box

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With future wife Diane Von Furstenberg at Studio 54 in 1978. Years later, Von Furstenberg sold her wares on Diller’s QVC.  

What was the landscape when you started the “Movie of the Week”? Why was that so radical at that time?

Making a 90-minute movie every week—for 26 weeks, actually, and repeating them—hadn’t been done. People said not only couldn’t you actually produce it, but you couldn’t produce it at any rational cost, and worse than that, no one would watch it, because people don’t watch movies on television, they watch series with people and ­characters that they get to know and like. They said trying to sell a new movie every week was impossible, which is why they allowed, essentially, a child—24, 25—to do it.

Who else started creating that content?

Twenty years ago, there were dozens and dozens of independent television producers. There are a couple now, at the most. Mark Burnett, Endemol. It’s gone. Everybody works for the Man now. And it’s natural law, how that happened: Nobody prescribed it, but it’s how things worked out and how it has been for decades, period. Now along comes the potential creative destruction brought by a different distribution methodology, the Internet. And we’ll see what happens.

It seems that the entrenched TV system is on its last legs.

You can’t say that! It’s very profitable. Where are these last legs? What is true, I think, is that just like this revolution of the Internet changed retailing, which it did, changed the music business, which it did, it is likely that now there will be an effect on the television media business.

But isn’t that the point of things like Aereo, to shift that model?

Aereo’s a great idea. When I first heard of it, I said, “There has to be something wrong with this,” and we spent a lot of time and a good amount of money trying to find, legally and technically, what was wrong with it. In the end, we not only found there was nothing wrong with it, but that it had the possibility of being disruptive.

Did you expect the fight with the networks?

My instinct was that it was a flawless argument relative to, essentially, the Communications Act of 1934, which said that a broadcaster receives a free license, and the quid pro quo is that the broadcaster agrees to operate in the public convenience and interest. That’s the foundation of broadcasting. Every person has a right to receive a broadcast signal without any intermediary between that broadcasting of the signal and the receipt of it by a person.

Meaning the wires on tops of houses, antennas?

Right. It’s an antiquated law, but Congress, only in the last five years, invested $650 million to make certain that the digital signal would be transmitted and could be received by a consumer, by a person. So it’s a pure law. I’m very sure—of course, I’m not the judge here, so my being very sure could be very worthless—but I’m very sure that [Aereo’s legality] will be upheld.

But did you think of Aereo as the beginning of the destruction of the current TV system?

No, no. It’s not the beginning of the destruction of anybody. TV wasn’t the destruction of the movie business. Television wasn’t the destruction of radio. Cable wasn’t the destruction of broadcast networks. What happens is new alternatives come, and they live alongside whatever existed.

Isn’t the idea to take Aereo and maybe bundle it with Netflix and some YouTube offerings, various webisodes, put it together, and say, “This is $33,” versus,“This Time Warner Cable package is $133”?

Wait, wait, let’s take it slow … Aereo is a platform, and yes, once that platform is established, you can offer other things alongside that platform, as you suggest. I’ve believed for a long time that à la carte program offerings are better for some people than 400 channels in a system of you take any, you take all. And technology, for the first time, allows or kind of predicts to me that there will be more à la carte offerings.

Right, like my household gets a thousand channels even though all we want is Comedy Central, HBO, and ESPN. Do you watch ESPN?

No. And I think, like many people who don’t watch ESPN, that we are, in fact, subsidizing the people who watch ESPN, because there’s a lot more that don’t than do. The people who watch ESPN will pay its fair-market price. But I don’t know why I have to pay anything toward ESPN, since it doesn’t interest me.

What will this look like, then, in ten years, in terms of—

Some other idiot will have to tell you what happens in ten years. Look, the question, to me, at the core, is why the set-top box has had no innovation—sorry, extraordinarily little innovation. Why is it that the remote control attached to the set-top box and the navigation systems are so lame? Cable has not needed to innovate. When the first innovation came along, TiVo, they killed it. I’m not saying they’re bad folks by any stretch, but the natural forces of technology are forcing a level playing field— now, people will come up with new ideas and compete. I think this will force cable to say, “You know what, we have a lousy customer experience. Let’s improve or they’re fleeing, because there are alternatives.”


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