Technology

Live Wire

10/10/2011 12:02 AM Eastern

He’s a billionaire, but he dresses like a
fan. He’s in a club of old-money National
Basketball Association team owners, but
he’s an avid blogger who got rich off the
dot-com boom. And while a typical media
company CEO carefully crafts quotes,
HDNet chief Mark Cuban speaks his mind
with a brashness that has cost him, quite
literally (the NBA has fined him for his
outbursts).

While his beloved Dallas Mavericks won
the NBA Finals in June — he still gets an
occasional standing ovation in a restaurant
— he’s now trying to make a winner out of
HDNet, one of the few independent cable
networks around.

Cover_Story_Image_10/10Cuban originally launched HDNet as one
of the first 24-hour, high-definition networks
to offer live sports programming, along with
movies and acquired content. Today, with 23
million subscribers, HDNet’s programming
lineup has evolved into exclusive series with
topics such as celebrity dating (CelebriDate); open marriages (The Ferris Wheel);
and real-estate management (The Super).
HDNet is also pushing into the news and
information genre with its Emmy Award-winning
series Dan Rather Reports, featuring
the respected former CBS News anchor.

Perhaps more than anything, Cuban is
putting stock in live-event programming,
ranging from concerts featuring such
groups as rock bands New Found Glory and
Widespread Panic to hard-punching mixed
martial arts events.

To further appeal to his target male viewers,
HDNet programs a late-night block of sexy
original content like Girls Gone Wild: Search
for the Hottest Girl In America
and Deadline.

Cuban’s cable tentacles also extend into
the movie category with HDNet Movies,
which offers theatrical films such as Melancholia
from Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures studio
two days before their theatrical debut.

The 53-year-old Cuban shows no signs of
mellowing. In New York last week to participate
in the NBA labor talks, Cuban slipped
away to sit down with Multichannel News
programming editor R. Thomas Umstead
and editor in chief Mark Robichaux. An
edited transcript follows.

MCN:
Now that everyone has HD, what
does the HDNet brand stand for?

Mark Cuban: We’re high-def meets the
Internet.

When we started HDNet, it was first HD,
but the Net part was knowing that at some
point the Internet would have to integrate.
Probably my timing was off. I think HD came
faster than I thought and the Internet came
slower than I thought.

But the reality is, when it comes to aggregating
an audience, TV is TV and no one has
forsaken TV for online.

So, from an HDNet perspective, where
we’re really trying to push the envelope is
saying the future of television is really leaning
towards live television, because that’s
the one area where you can purely differentiate
from the Internet. The Internet doesn’t
do live well. It’s hard to have a communal experience
on live Internet, because of all the
caching and all the latency and all the buffering. No one’s Wi-Fi is ever set up correctly.

TV is now.

MCN: So live programming is going to
drive the programming choices?

MC: I’m trying to get as much live as I can.
If I could, I’d have my primetime 100% live,
100% of the time.

MCN: That gets expensive, though,
doesn’t it?

MC: Actually, it’s less expensive, because
we have the trucks, we have the technology.
And to add all the interactivity, once you
spend it once and write the software once,
you’re done.

You know, when you run with the elephants,
there’s the quick and the dead. And
we have to be quick and we have to stay
ahead because everything is working against
an independent programmer. Everything.

MCN: You’re now airing mixed martial arts
fights — are you betting on this growing
bigger?

MC: Yeah, it’s the fastest growing sport
among men. I just love it. I mean you see
it in fashion, not so much in New York but
in middle America, you see it everywhere,
the Tom Hardy stuff, the
TapouT stuff, all that
kind of stuff. It’s huge.
And you see it in the UFC
buys.

MCN: Are you concerned
at all about the image?

MC: Oh no, because it’s
so mainstream right
now. Boxing has got bigger image problems.

MCN: What do you think of the UFC-Fox
deal? Does that help you?

MC: Yeah, it helps us because there are
very, very few live fights. They might put
one or two a year on, at most, and anything
that builds popularity of mixed martial
arts is good for us.

MCN: What is the viability of a single-sport
network?

MC: A couple of different issues there. One,
I mean because it’s live. That’s the key. Live
drives. Live television programming is the
only appointment television left, whether
it’s basketball, football, baseball, hockey
or Dancing With the Stars or American Idol.
There’s a reason why those are the most
popular programs. So I think, just by default,
those will continue to do well.

The question is, how much the secondary
markets work, right? So when you see
the Longhorn Network, I thought that was a
huge mistake for Texas. Every other deal that
you see happening with major-league sports
that are big deals, people are getting equity.
The Longhorns got no equity.

MCN: The Lakers are now going to have a
new channel. Do you ever consider one for
the Mavericks?

MC: Yeah of course, when my deal is up.
Absolutely. I think Time Warner [Cable] is
kind of our incumbent [in the Dallas area]
and HD Net is not on Time Warner. So will I
package the two to get one? Absolutely.

MCN: Has the cost of sports networks
gone too high for consumers’ cable bills?

MC: I don’t think it’s the cost of sports that’s
the issue.

It’s providers having to take networks that
are just placeholders. That’s a problem. So,
I’ll pick on Viacom. You know, VH1 Classic.
No one watches it! We can look at it and say
in our coverage rating, we’re side by side or
whatever, we kill ’em. Right? Fuel, the Fox
network, same thing, Fuse, we kill ’em.

It’s not like the [NCTC] is dying to take
VH1 Classic. We’re being forced to. So while
you can say the price of
sports has gone too high, in
reality what’s pushing those
cable bills up are not just
the networks that you don’t
watch, but the networks that
nobody watches.

How many times has Discovery
changed whatever
Planet Green is right now?
They’re all just placeholders. You know? BET
Jazz becomes I don’t even know what.

MCN: What are operators to do if the
programmers bundle their channels in this
way?

MC: Well that’s where the [Federal Communications
Commission] comes in. You’re
not working in the public’s best interest if
there are no independent voices.

Every deal should be priced individually,
and you should be able to say yes or no, because
then the price of that network is gonna
be zero or one or whatever, because you also
have the issue of bandwidth being limited.

The bigger issue is: It kills independent programming,
kills it. Everything just becomes a corporate mouthpiece. So you have the
Viacoms, the Discoverys, all the huge companies
— they’re the only ones that have
enough leverage that they won’t
get kicked off.

MCN: As the economy goes
down and prices go up, do you
think a la carte pricing of channels
is coming?

MC: I don’t think a la carte is going
to happen simply because
it’s too hard to market. If every
network sold a la carte, then
you’ve got the issue of taking
orders, changing packages. And
it’s gonna get a lot more expensive
real quick and, in essence,
that’s gonna drive people to the
Internet faster. You’re gonna
drive piracy through the roof.
And then nobody makes money.

MCN: What about sports tiers?

MC: It’ll save something, but
it will cost other people a lot of
money. In fact, if you’re a big TV
watcher, it would cost you a lot
more money.

MCN: Do you sell to “over-the-top”
providers such as Google,
Netflix, etc.?

MC: They’re complementary. I
don’t see them as a threat at all.
I’ll take everybody’s money, but I just
won’t stream in competition with my distributors.

MCN: You’ve complained about retransmission
consent. What’s the answer?

MC: Just go out and buy the cheapest little
antennas, right? You give
’em access in that market
with their own little antenna
and do like a Slingbox-
type thing. All you
need is that big box with
an antenna and then an
Internet connection.

MCN: What do you like
on HDNet’s lineup this
year?

MC: I love what Dan
[Rather] is doing. He’s
amazing. Amazing. I
mean think about this,
on HD Net, one out of every 10 programs
that he put on this year got nominated for
an Emmy. That’s part of being an independent
network where we’re able to theme
ourselves. Tuesday is news night. But yeah,
I don’t know how I’m gonna get him to go
live.

Live is key. We took Inside MMA live.
So that’ll start up in two weeks on Monday
nights. We’ve got a show that’s coming,
Bikini Blow Out. Well, actually, it’s changed,
Bikini Barbers of the Jersey Shore.

MCN: How do you feel about windows?

MC: Magnolia [Pictures] will
license a movie a month before
it’s in theaters, put it on
VOD. I would say 99% of the
titles. It allows the producers
to make a whole lot more
money because there’s a lot
less overhead and promotion
involved. And then because
we own Landmark Theaters,
we’ll still show them in theaters
— 300 screens in 18 of
the top 20 markets.

MCN: Is the iPad the
answer to navigation?

MC: It could be, it could be or any tablet, not
just the iPad. There is certainly no reason
why that shouldn’t be your remote control.

I actually like the remote control because to
me, the thing you’ll always have to remember
is what TV is. The definition of TV is the best
alternative to boredom. You’ve gotta be able
to have a hand on the
beer or in the chips and
do your thing. That’s why
you watch TV.

MCN: You show some
sexy, uncut shows in
the late-night hours.
How are the ratings?

MC: Off the charts. It’s
actually our highest-rated
block, because it
starts at midnight and
it goes ’til four o’clock in
the morning. We have a
show, Girls Gone Wild:
The Search for the Hottest
Girl in America,

which is more about the
search. So you get to see
what happens on the
Girls Gone Wild buses,
the parties, the guys and
what the girls do. So it’s
less about the girls and
more about the process,
and it’s just fascinating.

Mom might not like it,
and maybe the distributors
aren’t going to hold
it up as their core programming,
but it keeps
subscribers because that’s the only place you
can get it. When you go across our programming,
we’re pretty much the only place you
can get what we do.

And like me or hate me, I’m making the
programming decisions and I try to be as independent
as I can, to do things that different
types of audiences will like. That’s why
we can have Dan Rather and Girls Gone Wild.

MCN: What about 3D?

MC: Everybody keeps telling me that’s the
future. I don’t think so.

MCN: You’ve had a little bit of a bad boy
image over the last several years. Have you
calmed down any?

MC: I just try to do what I think is right. I know
it puts me out there sometimes as a target but
I feel good about what I do and try to do. You
don’t see me really pulling people down, and
it’s rare that you see me criticize individuals,
unless they’re referees and even then …

Most people, they’re afraid to stand up
there and speak. And so I think there’s a real
place to stand up for what’s right. If I don’t,
who’s gonna do it?

September