If the Internet is like the TV business, then we are now in 1945 or so. That was when TV began to look like a legitimate medium-but most people working in radio did not believe it would ever become dominant.
Meet Jon Klein. At 41 years old, Mr. Klein, the No. 2 guy in the news division at CBS, is one of many executives now making the leap from the sure thing of TV to the uncertainties of the Internet. If he’s right, and viewers will soon be watching their computer screens the way they now watch TV, then you can call Mr. Klein a pioneer. If he’s wrong, and TV remains dominant, then perhaps that would make him something of a sucker.
After having experienced success ( 60 Minutes , 48 Hours ) and failure ( Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel ) during his 16 years with the network, Mr. Klein is launching something called Thefeedroom.com, a Web site with TV-style newscasts and video feeds on all kinds of subjects.
“It’s probably like what it was like in the beginning of television,” said Mr. Klein at a cafe in SoHo early one recent morning. “It’s like you’re driving on unpaved roads and trying to figure out which way out of the forest. Like in the early days of television, we’re kind of like making it up as we go along.”
His site, he said, will be able to do things that traditional television news cannot. “You can take people anywhere,” said Mr. Klein, adding he’s on the verge of closing a deal to be carried on a major Internet service provider. “You can literally go to the eye of a hurricane when it hits. You can go on a yacht whose skipper is sailing around the world. You can get right in the middle of the tragedy in Kosovo and hear from the horse’s mouth the terror. We’re going to bring all of that together every day, 24 hours a day.”
So far, he said, he has raised millions of dollars for his venture, which will launch in a few weeks. While a big payoff somewhere down the line is the obvious goal, Mr. Klein is starry-eyed about the future of this new medium.
But there’s a huge problem with his plan. It can be summed up as follows: Have you ever tried to download a video feed or watch dense moving pictures on your computer? It isn’t pretty. And that’s where “broadband” comes in. Without broadband-which gets its name from the fat Matrix -like cable that can run into your computer from the outside world-any pictures you can get on your computer screen will be pixelated at worst and slow to appear at best. With broadband, ah, now that’s much better. Executives like Mr. Klein believe that broadband is the future. As evidence, they might point to something like AT&T Corporation’s $58 billion acquisition of Media One Group Inc. last year. If you had to sum up the meaning of that merger in a quick phrase, it would be this: Broadband is coming. About 1.25 million people have it right now.
Broadband’s most optimistic proponents say that the device will allow for channels upon channels upon channels, targeting ever narrower audiences. The result? The networks, already losing plenty of viewers, will become even less powerful, if not obsolete. And so we’ve got something of a TV-to-Internet exodus going on right now in New York and Los Angeles.
“I have had discussions with a lot of people over whether what we’re doing is a dinosaur and should we continue pursuing careers in TV,” said an ABC News producer in his early 30’s. “Everybody’s got feelers out to figure out how to get in on it.”
In recent weeks, three ABC producers have put in their walking papers, leaving good ol’ network TV for Internet jobs. And all of them could have stayed right where they were.
The TV establishment eyes its Internet castoffs warily. They paint many of the people leaving TV for the Internet as miscreants who had no real place in the medium anymore anyway.
“It’s like the people who went out West during the gold rush-maybe they’ll strike it rich, maybe they won’t, but they’ve got nothing to lose,” said one television insider.
They point to people like Peter Arnett. Disgraced after fronting the unsubstantiated CNN report charging the military used experimental nerve gas on Vietnam defectors, he took a job with an outfit called Foreigntv.com. Or Hugh Downs-who has left ABC for a Washington, D.C., Internet news site-a man at the end of his career looking to retire gracefully.
For his part, Mr. Downs notes that he was around for the big media revolution (radio to TV) 50 years ago-and he is getting that same peculiar feeling all over again.
“When I started broadcasting, it was 60 years ago and television was a word, and some futuristic movies showed people watching television, staring at a little box,” Mr. Downs said on the eve of his last night on ABC’s 20/20 . “It was all like pie in the sky. It was this nonexistent thing and then, when the electron-scan beam was developed in World War II, nobody would have believed it would blossom the way it has. When the ad revenue began being siphoned off from radio to television, I resented it. God, I wanted it to go away. Finally, I figured, if I can’t lick it, I better join it. And now I see the same thing happening. It was a gamble, and I think that’s what a lot of people are doing now-taking a chance.”
David Levine, head programmer for the yet-to-launch Centerseat.com, talks the same game. Mr. Levine, 43, recently left his most recent post as New York bureau chief of Access Hollywood for his job at Centerseat.com for a comparable salary.
“Look, when I was bureau chief of Access Hollywood , I had what I considered my dream job. I thought I was as happy as a pig in you-know-what and thought I would be there forever,” he said. But then he was approached by the people at Centerseat, who were recruiting TV people. After their pitch, he resigned, and he now sounds like a man who has been to Internet re-education camp. “I see this like the train is leaving the station and, gee, I’d love to be in the first car as it leaves. Also, making the move to Centerseat, as head of news, was Good Morning America senior producer Terry Baker.”
Centerseat is in the process of acquiring thousands of old television sitcoms, which users will be able to call up whenever they want. The Internet network will also offer traditionally scheduled original shows. The company is hiring now and won’t be up in earnest until December. Viewers will be encouraged to purchase the products they see in the programs. “What we’re trying to do is create the most ambitious version of a television network on your computer tried yet,” said Mr. Levine. “This is a chance at greatness and, frankly, a chance to make a lot of money.”
Josh Harris, chairman of Pseudo.com, the first Internet TV network that launched out of SoHo four years ago, looked dazed as he looked out his fifth-floor window on the corner of Broadway and Houston, smoking a cigarette and ashing into a blue coffee cup one recent afternoon. “It’s madness,” he said, looking drawn and casual. “We have one new person a day. A third of the people in the company I don’t recognize.”
With Time Warner now rolling out tests of its broadband access system, it is time for Pseudo.com, offering a range of “alternative” programming-a rap channel, a video-game channel, a sex channel and a space channel-to begin stepping it up. The company employs about 160 people, and the offices are bustling with all types: East Village kids who produce and star on the shows, artists, and the suits who are making deals and selling ads.
Mr. Harris, 38, is one of the Internet’s sloppy golden boys. He’s been involved in the tech business since before there was an Internet, in 1984. He founded the leading Internet research group, Jupiter Communications, and launched Pseudo.com in 1994. Mr. Harris said it has about 2 million viewers per month.
Mr. Harris, said to be worth $60 million on paper, has the aura of someone who lives in a world everyone else is just starting to discover. He dresses how he pleases-sloppily and untucked. His gaze is somewhat arrogant and straight-on.
He seems amused by all of the Johnny-come-latelies to his turf-though he’s in the process of hiring some of them himself. And while he wonders how many of them will make it, to him there is no question that they are setting sail for the right and proper destination.
“The days of TV being the most powerful medium in the world I guess are now over,” he said. “But their egos don’t want to let them admit that. They’re still bigger, still more powerful. They can still persuade more people. But the invasion has begun. It’s clear to anyone with half a brain. It’s a war that can’t be won. It’s starting to become obvious. A year ago, people thought we were absolutely nuts. I couldn’t get a dollar out of the venture market. Now it’s push-pull. They’re calling us.”
Mr. Harris’s network is amid its own television executive recruitment drive. It just hired CNNfn senior technology producer Mark Berniker as an executive producer. Josh White, who directed a few episodes of Seinfeld , is in charge of all production at 600 Broadway, which houses the Pseudo.com studios. It’s the natural evolution of things, Mr. Harris said.
“We have mature kids,” he said. “Now we’re bringing in seasoned pros and merging them with the mature kids.” But he’s careful about whom he hires. “There are losers out there; we went through them already,” he said. What he doesn’t want in an executive is the old thinking, the thinking that, he believes, is going to keep the networks from being able to beat him at this new game. The thinking that says you have to have a hit that appeals to as many people as possible. As Mr. Harris and other Internet TV executives see it, television for the Web is going to succeed by targeting tighter and tighter audiences. For instance, while the advertiser may be reaching fewer people, it knows it’s reaching the people it wants.
Not that Mr. Harris’ network couldn’t use some old-time TV help. It often comes off more like public access, roughly shot and grainy. It’s hard to download the shows.
Mr. Harris predicts that it will be a good year or two before the average computer user has broadband access and will be able to watch his shows trouble-free. By then, he’s sure the production glitches will be straightened out.
Meanwhile, in the TV business, they’re holding firm. Even as they acquire Web sites nearly by the day, network executives believe theirs is a formula that has withstood the test of time and numerous obituaries.
“The Internet is a terrific medium for a lot of different things, but it is not a replacement for mass media,” said CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz. “All prognostications to the contrary, there is no replacement for mass media.”
Even if the networks retain their dominant position by gobbling up all these start-up ventures, like Mr. Klein’s or Mr. Harris’ or Mr. Levin’s, in the end old-timers like Mr. Downs have no doubt that all roads will still lead to television via computer.
“I think the time will come when Abcnews.com will be bigger than ABC News ,” said Mr. Downs.
Historian Jeff Kisseloff, who wrote the definitive oral history of television, The Box , agrees: “Clearly, something enormous is about to happen, and I think you could say the same thing about television in 1945 and 1946 after the war.”