In 1992, John Malone, the brilliant, hard-nosed, and widely feared CEO of cable giant TCI, announced that the 500-channel information superhighway was imminent, and he was going to build it. The media went nuts. Companies by the hundreds, investors by the millions, politicians of all stripes, rushed to embrace this marvel of the age, this technology that would change our lives and make the savvy and the quick rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
Trouble was, John Malone's interest in building the 500-channel information superhighway was largely rhetorical. He was much more interested in selling his debt-ridden company, with its notorious reputation for wretched customer service, to Ray Smith at Bell Atlantic--in what would be the largest merger in United States history. But sometimes bluffs--even $33 billion bluffs--get out of hand. As entertainment, phone, computer, and electronics companies raced to spend vast sums on interactive digital television (the miracle technology at the heart of the information superhighway), nobody stopped to answer a crucial question: Was John Q. Public really going to fork over his hard-earned dough to have a conversation with his television set?
Witty, brilliantly reported, and wickedly revealing, The Billionaire Shell Game follows the best and the brightest of the information age--people like Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, Wired guru Nicholas Negroponte, media mogul Barry Diller, the unpredictable genius Ted Turner, and the only man Malone truly feared, Rupert Murdoch--as they enthusiastically spend their stockholders' money in pursuit of a glittering future.
L.J. Davis has written a wildly entertaining tale of greed, stupidity, and the high-tech shell game.
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Remember interactive TV? In the early '90s, before the Internet caught everyone by surprise, interactive TV was supposed to be the next big thing. Cable operators, phone companies, and media giants raced to get in on it, spending big bucks on pilot projects in places like Omaha, Nebraska, and Orlando, Florida. Americans were told that by 1995, every household would receive 500 channels. Or better yet, the two-way capability of coaxial cable would be harnessed to let us order virtually any program or movie whenever we wanted from vast digital libraries.
But the costs and technical challenges proved greater than anyone expected. The pilot projects failed to find much public interest in interactive TV or any willingness to pay much for it. Yet the dream beguiled many corporate chieftains for a time and suited the ulterior motives of others, according to L.J. Davis, who wittily chronicles the entire folly in The Billionaire Shell Game. The book relies heavily on newspaper and magazine accounts, but Davis weaves together an entertaining tale with a needle-sharp pen worthy of P.J. O'Rourke.
Davis writes that much of corporate America was sold on the chimera of interactive TV through the relentless self-promotion of Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT Media Lab, who is portrayed as little better than a charlatan with "a highly flexible notion of the truth." Victims of their own techno-enthusiasm include Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic and Gerald Levin of Time Warner.
But the central and most fascinating figure is John Malone of cable giant TCI. Far from being taken in by interactive TV, he is pictured as cynically exploiting its promise in order to cut favorable deals with less savvy CEOs and to extort ever-higher fees from cable subscribers. "Wrapping himself in the mantle of the future," Davis writes of Malone, "he would find his sucker." The book presages but ends before Malone achieved his greatest triumph, convincing AT&T to pay $48 billion for debt-burdened and technologically lagging TCI.
The Billionaire Shell Game is a fun read and a good reminder that much claptrap comes wrapped in visions of the future. --Barry MitzmanFrom the Publisher:
"The Billionaire Shell Game is not only an eye-opener, it's also a thigh-slapper. L.J. Davis excels at bringing to life those cardboard characters on the business pages of the press and probing their psyches and souls while exposing their schemes. No one writes about business with such explosive wit."
--Les Brown, founder of Channels magazine and author of The Encyclopedia of Television
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