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Barry Diller: Convergence Contrarian
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Streaming Media magazine, May, 2001

The purpose of this column is to provide a window on the ways that the established entertainment media are converging with the streaming media universe. And, as luck would have it, at this year’s Spring InternetWorld in Los Angeles, I had the good fortune to witness an unusual keynote address that not only linked directly with the title of this new column, but which also illuminated the essential creative assumptions that underlie all of our efforts to create this new medium.

Barry DillerThe keynote speaker was no less than Barry Diller, currently the CEO of USA Networks, but more importantly one of the most successful new media innovators ever. In fact, Diller was creating new media before the term came into fashion. Decades ago, as an executive at ABC, he is credited with inventing the Movie of the Week. Later, he led the development of the first successful fourth TV network, Fox. And, then, against all expectations, he went on the break into his first truly interactive media venture by becoming CEO of QVC when, as he described it, home shopping “had been derided as a cheesy bazaar selling fake diamonds.” (This sounds a bit like some of the things that they’ve been saying about e-commerce lately, eh?)

Now, as the leader of an old media/new media conglomerate that in addition to owning numerous cable channels, also owns Ticketmaster who Diller reports is selling an impressive 30% of its tickets online, he is able to play the role of a savvy media mogul elder statesman who, fortunately for us, is willing and able to share some well-seasoned wisdom.

I was particularly pleased with Diller’s keynote presentation, not only because he articulated his creative approach to new media innovations, but because they provided the perfect philosophical platform from which to launch this new column.

More Than Technology
As we transition through what Diller implied was something like “the end of the beginning” of the Internet, those of us who believe in streaming media as a viable new media world find ourselves challenged in many ways. As Diller told the significantly smaller than last year’s InternetWorld audience, “Everyone here has been deluged, bombarded and beaten down by the promises and predictions of the new media world order.” What we need is to find a solid foundation upon which to build what we true believers know is a very promising streaming media future.

Clearly, new kinds of online media experiences will be created as
much because of the creative talents of producers and developers
as because of never-ending technological innovation.

In order to create rich new media experiences with streaming or any media, Diller pointed toward a “fusion” of the technologies and the creative process. Underscoring a common sense approach that any creative person could appreciate, he reminded us that “digitizing video, text and audio, and then popping them in a computational Cuisinart, doesn’t necessarily create a new product.” He said, “We make a mistake — a serious, crippling mistake — when we insist on defining convergence primarily along the dimensions of technological innovation.”

Discovering The New Medium
Clearly, new kinds of online media experiences will be created as much because of the creative talents of producers and developers as because of never-ending technological innovation. In fact, going a step further, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit, if when we look back a decade from now, the real catalysts of the killer, breakthrough streaming media formats are executives like Diller who not only have their own creative chutzpah, but who also have enough of a vision to know that there is more to developing a new medium than pasting together pieces of old ones inside of a new technological envelope.

Pardon the pun, but Diller hit the nail on the head this way. “Give a child a hammer and the whole world looks like a nail. So, silicon chip companies look at convergence and see a giant microprocessor. The telecommunication companies look at it and see a huge multimedia network. And, the movie studios and book publishers are trying to define it only in terms of the content that they have already created.”

The Creative Contrarian
Although Diller claimed that what he was describing was not a philosophy, he did find a way to quote George Bernard Shaw, who he said “once defined success as the willingness to take the path of maximum advantage rather than the path of least resistance.” That’s why innovator Diller so enjoys the attitude of a contrarian. Based on his extraordinarily experiences as an innovator, Diller advised that “the really big successes come when people challenge the conventional wisdom with ideas that only have their own integrity and no track record to give them credence.”

And how does one create this kind of creative integrity? Dr. Diller prescribed that each of us needs “the patience to relax and follow your curiosity instead of hyper-ventilating and chasing the crowd.”

Artfulness And Nuances

Diller himself began to understand the value of this insight as
he pondered the new medium of TV-home shopping in its early days.

What master TV programmer Diller was really pointing toward was the creative process which is all too frequently lost in the barrage of business plans and in the re-purposing of old media. To further illuminate this point, he offered a valuable historical perspective: “To define television as ‘radio with pictures’ is completely accurate, but completely wrong. It misses the point.”

Diller himself began to understand the value of this insight as he pondered the new medium of TV-home shopping in its early days. He thought, “It’s TV; it’s not TV… It’s computers; it’s not computers… It’s retailing; it’s not retailing… It’s advertising; it’s not advertising… To define home shopping as ‘cable television with telemarketing,’ or as ‘a transactions-processing network with live video’ is accurate; but it is completely wrong. It misses the point.”

That’s when Diller first discovered that there is “artfulness and nuance in convergence.” (And you thought that we were going to be forever stuck with streaming media programs that are so clunky that they can be compared to the ransom note-style flyers that gave desktop publishing a bad name.)

Bottom line, Diller implored us all to meet convergence, (or the challenges of creating this new streaming medium) “on its own wildly unique terms.” He reminded us that we still need creative innovators like Edward R. Murrow. After all, it was Murrow, in TV’s early days, who was the first to break out of the pattern of TV as repackaged radio by creating the medium’s first truly intimate programs. Diller reminded us that it is the creative producers among us have the all-important opportunity to deliver nothing less than “the spark, the ignition… (that gets) audiences to respond in new ways."

Now, that’s a new media approach that I believe is worth pursuing. And, it is also a fundamental kind of media power which can help any streaming media company survive the most damaging kinds of stock market downturns. I’ll use this column to keep my eye out for what I think are the true convergence innovators; and while I’m at it, I’ll thank Mr. Diller for his guidance. Stay tuned.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]
You may also want to read Diller Says Convergence is Working on the Industry Standard web site.
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