Levin's Last Lesson For Cable

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It was an impassioned defense of a video future without borders. It was delivered by Gerry Levin, the outgoing CEO of AOL Time Warner Inc., during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call some five weeks ago — and it was largely lost among the dour financial results and the sober projections for 2002.

But it may well serve as an epitaph for the Home Box Office and Full Service Network pioneer, who will step down from his post as the world's largest converged media company this summer.

Levin was asked about multiple video streams from multiple Internet-service providers — a rather radical concept. This was his response:

"Speaking as both a cable person and as an [Internet protocol] person, what I'm trying to get across is that, today, when you look at video-on-demand, it is essentially a streaming service coming from a server farm. And the only difference between that and what we're delivering on [America Online] high-speed is that one uses an MPEG [Moving Picture Expert Group] form of engineering delivery, and the other uses an IP format.

"It certainly doesn't make any difference to the consumer. Over time, either those two things will coexist or they'll blend. It just depends on where more R&D is going.

"But the concept is absolutely the same: It's not a television channel and it's not the delivery of the Internet … I'll call it a stream, you can call it a channel … but it's unique to that home. In other words, you've pulled that out of the server, and that's why you can stop it, start it and go fast forward.

"People haven't made the connection, but that's essentially what AOL is, except you're using information. But now, when you have AOL 7.0 delivered through Road Runner or any cable high-speed service, you're delivering video-on-demand.

"I happen to be one of the biggest users of AOL high-speed, using a cable connection. And I go in and get music videos and trailers all the time. That's streaming video."

With respect to multiple ISPs, Levin continued: "Think about the old cable idea of being able to switch from a lot of video sources. When you have multiple ISPs, you can essentially switch streaming video or any kind of communications or information coming from any server source, summoned by the consumer. So that's, to me, why all this comes together and why I've been pushing so hard for multiple ISPs.

"Going forward, you're going to look at AOL and these cable services having the same capacity to build premium charges. And the way you build premium charges is, I can deliver from server farms streaming data, whether it's in video form or not. I think it's a profound thing. That's why we pushed so hard."

It was vintage Levin. Part educator, part evangelist, part boat-rocker. You could hear it is his voice: the subdued frustration that people just don't quite get that his defense of multiple ISPs wasn't a defense of AOL chairman Steve Case's pre-merger view of the world.

Rather, his paean to multiple ISPs was a pro-active push to drive future revenues.

His contention: the combination of video content and broadband architectures, feeding into PCs and TVs, will fundamentally change how Americans consume content over the next decade. And AOL Time Warner has all of it.

What's interesting was that Levin was so "big picture" that he didn't spend any time defending the little picture. Maybe as departing CEO, he's freer to speak his mind and less tied to such mundane tasks as the quarterly results. He said nothing about protecting Time Warner Cable's business in the face of so much Internet video streaming. And he said nothing about how to protect Road Runner from multiple ISPs.

The concept of a cable operator treating all video — whether MPEG- or IP-based, and from any source — on an equal footing is a radical departure from just a few short years ago. When cable modems were first deployed, operators put limits on the amount of streamed video content for both technical and business reasons. Those restrictions have slowly gone by the wayside.

Operators also fought against government-mandated multiple ISP access. But Levin's thesis is that cable operators are broadband operators — and as such, they should make no distinction between IP and MPEG services.

Such a view ties directly into the Interactive Personal Video Group that AOL Time Warner formed last year. The group will likely stand as Levin's last sizable creation before his departure.

The IPVG may be to this decade what HBO was to the 1970s, and what the FSN in Orlando, Fla., was intended to be in the 1990s. Levin was the chief architect behind all three.

Historians would say he's one for two so far, with the jury still out on IPVG. But over time, the interactive-video unit could prove Levin's most enduring legacy, surpassing the creation of HBO and AOL Time Warner itself.

The new group, led by Joe Collins and Jim Chiddix, is extending the FSN vision a few steps further, aided by cheaper technology, wider broadband delivery platforms (cable and Internet) and larger selections of content at its disposition.

The new group is the epitome of Levin's vision of content without borders. It will not choose favorites between IP or MPEG video, although it may start out of gate with an MPEG tilt, since so much more MPEG video exists right now. It stands poised to democratize what PVRs have done in a small minority of U.S. homes: Reshape the fundamental definition of the linear consumption of media.

It's worth remembering that Gerry Levin's been right more often in his career than he's been wrong, and that he's built an unmatched empire of content, communications and delivery platforms. But even in his advanced status of presiding over that converged empire, he relishes the role of cable statesman.

And before it's handed over to Brian Roberts or Glenn Britt or Jim Robbins or Jim Dolan, Levin took the podium one more time as the voice above the crowd, "speaking as a cable person and an IP person."

Shining a light on cable's higher calling, not on what cable could do, but what it ought to do.

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