Steve Jobs, Hollywood iMogul

No, he wasn’t wearing a black mock turtleneck, but yes, that was Steve Jobs in a tuxedo walking the red carpet at the Oscars. It was Mr. Jobs who claimed some kudos for Up, which won two gold statues, and who also marked the night by airing the first TV spot for the iPad, the latest offering from his Apple Inc.

Mr. Jobs’ presence attracted an unusual amount of chatter for such a jaded crowd. Speculation ranged from whether he was sending a message that he is back on his feet after his much-publicized liver transplant, to whether it was true that he had motored down from Silicon Valley because he has forsaken air travel. Overall, the tech mag Infoworld noted adoringly of the outing: “Who was the richest person in attendance? Who has the most influence and commands the biggest audience? Who’s the least bound to Hollywood’s old ways of doing business? The answer to those questions is the same.”

Which is why it’s been interesting to observe how little has been disclosed as yet about the iPad’s potential to change the game in Hollywood.

 Granted, the gizmo was only unveiled in late January and doesn’t hit stores for two more weeks. Although pitched as an affordable, easy-to-use device that can deliver all kinds of media, the iPad’s initial directives seem to be to transform print publishing and move the exploding world of software “apps” from the iPhone to a device with physical dimensions more along the lines of what people have come to think of as a laptop. But Mr. Jobs’ presence on Oscar night was also a reminder that he harbors ambitions to revolutionize the TV and film businesses just as much—if not more—as he does books and magazines.

Since selling Pixar, he’s been a director and the biggest single shareholder in Disney (though his day-to-day influence is probably less than you’d imagine). More importantly, the ascent of Apple over the past few years has been astonishing. Last week, the company briefly surpassed Wal-Mart as the third-largest company in America by market capitalization—worth some $206 billion. In the ultimate nerd vengeance fantasy, Mr. Jobs not only has way more financial muscle than anyone in Hollywood, he’s cooler than and has as much cultural impact as anyone of his generation. In the ultimate meta-tribute, a show is being developed for the new pay-TV channel Epix by Jerry Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm alum Larry Charles satirizing Jobs. Mr. Charles told the Web site Deadline Hollywood that the project chronicles “nothing less than a modern Citizen Kane.”

It’s no surprise, then, that an industry as status-conscious as Hollywood would view Apple as something of a corporate rapscallion. Much of its success has come from a gigantic transfer of value from the music industry, which didn’t react soon enough to the advent of iPods and iTunes. (It’s a debatable point that is, as they say, what it is.) What is not in dispute is the growing control Mr. Jobs wields over the future of how media is distributed.

It’s foolishly early to make predictions, but if the iPad is widely embraced, it invariably opens a new front in the battle over the future of video. While Internet video use is growing rapidly, so, surprisingly, is viewing of TV in the home. The big video battle yet to be fought is for the living room, where cable and broadcast still rule and brands like Google and Apple don’t hold much sway; Apple TV, which lets people bypass their cable to download shows and movies and surf YouTube and such, is a cool little gizmo but an example of one Jobs creation that has so far fallen short.

People in the U.S. watch more than 30 billion videos a month online—mostly via YouTube, owned by Apple’s newish rival Google. But the average length of those views is only around four minutes, and the advertising market for online video is still comparatively miniscule to what is spent on TV and cable. 
Apple has reportedly been trying to convince the networks that sell individual episodes of their shows via iTunes to drop their prices by half to 99 cents per episode to encourage consumption on (and, ergo, sales of) the iPad. No dummies they, the incumbent TV giants like Comcast and Time Warner have responded to the rise of Web video, pirate sites and an increasingly mobile audience by pushing an initiative called “TV Everywhere,” under which subscribers to cable or satellite will be able to watch whatever they’re paying for on their TV dial on any device. That, too, can only be good for sales of Mr. Jobs’ shiny new toy.

His physical appearances in L.A. may be rare, but don’t be fooled. His machines are everywhere, and every exec in town will be sending an assistant out to get one on April 2.

rsiklos@observer.com Steve Jobs, Hollywood iMogul