Cuban, in short, was doing precisely what Turner had done with TBS (and Gerry Levin with HBO) at the dawn of the age of cable: aiming to create a programming brand synonymous with the ascendant delivery technology. In pursuing this course, Cuban, again like Captain Outrageous (whose acquisition of MGM’s library was a masterstroke), has also plunged into Hollywood. With his Broadcast.com partner Todd Wagner, he started 2929 Productions, which teamed up with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s production company, Section Eight, on films like Good Night, and Good Luck and Bubble, the latter a controversial experiment in releasing a film simultaneously in theaters and on HDNet.
At the moment, let’s be honest here, much of the programming on Cuban’s two networks is pretty uninspiring. But damn, does it look good! When Cuban first laid out his plans to me a couple of years ago—that if his channels got entrenched on cable and satellite systems, he’d be sitting pretty, for high-def’s allure was such that once you had it, the only channels you’d find yourself watching were ones broadcast in HD—I only grasped the point in theory. Now, after six months living with a 45-inch Sharp flat-panel monitor, I can only say that truer words were never spoken.
Nevertheless, as Cuban admits, “You can start with pretty pictures, but then you gotta start programming like a real network.” For Turner, the next move after TBS was CNN—and so it’s not surprising that Cuban decided to take the plunge into news (albeit on a far smaller scale) by hiring Rather. “I think people underestimate the opportunity for news in high-def—and here was a chance to get this icon of the news business.”
“One of the most attractive things about Mark,” says Rather, “is that he doesn’t give a damn about what anybody thinks.”
Both Cuban and Rather wax rhapsodic about the power that HD images might lend to news reporting. But it’s clear that, for each of them, the project that they’re now undertaking—an hour-long weekly program, starting in October, which Cuban hopes will be “a reincarnation of 60 Minutes in the early days”—is being fueled less by technology than a conviction that the dismal state of traditional TV news has created an opening. “I think news has become so corporate—driven by what I call ‘newsenomics,’ ” says Cuban. “It’s no longer about who gives you the best stories, who breaks the most news, who gives the most depth. It’s about who gives you the best numbers. And when who’s got the best legs equals the best numbers, journalism gets lost.”
Though Cuban disclaims any intention of becoming a new news baron, the Rather project isn’t his only journalistic endeavor. Recently, he decided to finance a novel investigative Website called Sharesleuth, run by a veteran business reporter and dedicated to exposing corporate fraud. (The journalist made his pitch to Cuban via e-mail; though the site is now live, Cuban admits, “I still haven’t met the guy.”) The interesting wrinkle, however, is that Cuban intends to trade on information dug up by his sleuther—before the stories are published. “There’ll be transparency that this is what we’re doing,” he says. “If he uncovers fraud, I’ll short the stock, and we’ll pay for the site, hopefully, by making money on the trades.”
Put aside for the moment the (many) ethical questions raised by such a scheme: Sharesleuth is a useful reminder that Cuban’s forays into news are not purely (or even mainly) altruistic. They’re hardheaded capitalist ventures. Like Turner—whose investment in foreign news at CNN when the Big Three networks were retrenching overseas not only produced (for a time) better coverage but proved (again, for a time) a profitable strategy—Cuban is making a business bet, not bidding for a commendation from the Columbia Journalism Review.
Yet Cuban argues that, for him, profit and quality are not intrinsically opposed. “My economics are different” from mainstream news operations, he says. “I don’t have investors to keep happy. I’m not going to take the company public. So I want untethered news, without worrying who’s our advertiser this week, who are we going to offend? I’m like, ‘If we never sell a minute of advertising on the show, that’s okay by me.’ ”
Such sentiments are music to Rather’s ears. “Mark said, ‘I want you to do fearless work,’ ” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, when you do that kind of work, not everybody’s going to love you.’ And he came right back and said, ‘We don’t know each other well . . . but I’m not a stranger to controversy.’ ”
No kidding. “Think about how many industries there are where people hate my guts,” Cuban muses at the Royalton. “Basketball, movies, the sports media—I mean, hey, that’s a pretty good scorecard!”