Dan Rather had been on the line for barely two minutes when he compared his new boss to a pair of the most hallowed personages in the annals of broadcasting. “What I was looking for was a Bill Paley circa 1932 or a Ted Turner circa 1979,” Rather said. “Somebody who ached to contribute to news, who had, yes, the personal resources, but also the will—the guts—to put his money where his mouth was.”
Both the money and mouth in question, of course, belong to Mark Cuban, a man well known to possess a deficit in neither category. As the founder of Broadcast.com in the nineties, Cuban made himself a billionaire by selling his company to Yahoo at the height of the Internet bubble—a deal that earned him a reputation, however unfair, as one of the era’s most egregious beneficiaries of blind shithouse luck. As the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Cuban has emerged as the most rambunctious executive in professional sports—forever howling from his courtside perch, launching broadsides from his blog at the league’s referees, propelling NBA commissioner David Stern into Shaq-size fits of pique (and racking up $1.65 million in fines in the process).
All of which is why Rather’s comparison—which he’s made more than once since announcing his new gig with Cuban’s HDNet earlier this month—has elicited its share of theatrical eye-rolling from the broadcasting Establishment. And, indeed, it’s hard to imagine a figure less Paleyesque (born to money, buttoned-up, surrounded by the Great and Good, nurturing a lifelong aspiration to the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s) than Cuban.
Yet when it comes to the other half of his analogy, Rather may be onto something. At a moment of wrenching change in the news business and the media game generally, Cuban stands as a singularly interesting figure: hip to technology but no quaffer of the Kool-Aid (“The Internet is boring,” he recently declared, followed by “Broadband video is overrated, too”), instinctively contrarian, possessed of a gambler’s taste for risk and an outsider’s disdain for the Old Guard’s shibboleths. In all of this, the parallels with Turner are inescapable—and go a long way toward explaining why Cuban would take a flier on Rather and why Rather found his entreaties irresistible.
“One of the most attractive things about Mark,” Rather observed in a grateful tone, “is that, as much as anyone I know, he doesn’t give a damn about what anybody thinks.”
Cuban rolls into the lobby of the Royalton on the hottest day of the summer, looking chilled and crisp in dark slacks and a blue dress shirt. When I postulate that he’s on his way to becoming the new Ted Turner—his generation’s Mouth of the South—he initially demurs (“I’m not trying to copy him”) but then warms to the theory. “Yeah, it’s analogous,” he says. “He’s a guy I admire. He’s done things on his own terms and had fun doing it.”
By all indications, fun is the fulcrum on which Cuban’s existence pivots. In two hours, he relates a dozen anecdotes that, for any self-respecting member of the ESPN the Magazine demo, fall into the category of things-I-would-definitely-do-if-I-were-a-billionaire. (One of the few examples I’m free to relate: a recent weekend in Vegas—where he has been known to drop $10,000 on a hand of blackjack—with Mavs stars Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.) As Cuban cheerily allows, “My life doesn’t suck.”
When Turner was in his forties, as Cuban is now (at 48), he too was famous for such romps. And as the owner of the Atlanta Braves, he pioneered the antic style that Cuban has perfected, sitting behind the dugout at home games, leading on-field sing-alongs of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
For all the notoriety that the Mavericks bring Cuban, however, he estimates that running the team occupies only 15 percent of his time. The rest is devoted to building his nascent digital-media empire—and here the similarities to Turner’s trajectory become even more compelling.
The linchpin of Cuban’s empire is HDNet, which broadcasts two high-definition TV channels: HDNet Movies and general-interest HDNet. On HDNet, the fare ranges from high-def versions of series acquired from other networks (the WB’s Smallville) to original shows devoted to everything from travel (Bikini Destinations) and sports (Friday Fight Night) to a forthcoming reality series called From Geek to Freak featuring Dennis Rodman. (“He takes a secretary and turns her into a stripper!” Cuban cackles. “Humiliating TV at its best!”)
When Cuban started down this path five years ago, it represented a wager that few others were nervy enough to make. At the time, the cost of HD sets—$8,000 and up—caused most media players to assume that HD was never going to happen. But Cuban, with his background in tech, knew that prices were destined to fall precipitously. “The cable and satellite operators needed HD programming,” he tells me. “And I lost a boatload of money—but that was the price of admission.”