The South’s New Mouth

Illustration by Darrow

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 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.”

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 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!”

No doubt Cuban, with Rather at his side and the technological wind firmly at his back, is on his way to incurring a new set of enemies. The broadcast Establishment may be a shadow of its former self, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t capable of wielding some long knives. Already, Cuban is being called an arriviste, a know-nothing, a dilettante; a guy whose dreams of reforming the news are bound to end in humiliation, if not financial ruin. (As Cuban notes, “Whatever happens, it’s not like I’m going to starve.”)

But then, of course, those very same things were once said about Ted Turner.


The South’s New Mouth