“Radio has no future”
– Lord Kelvin, Royal Society, 1897
“Television may be feasible, but commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility.”
– Lee DeForrest, Radio Pioneer, 1926
“Rock ‘n roll will be gone by June.”
– Variety Magazine, 1955
“Apple is toast!”
– New York Times, 1998
“Television and movies have no future on mobile devices.”
– NATPE, 2004
“Who the fuck is Paul McCartney?!
– Popular Twitter Meme (after Grammys), 2012
Herewith, a tale of how I managed to get involved with an Internet start-up company, write a history of multimedia interactivity, get a book deal, get fired from the Internet start-up company and decline the book deal. Life is weird!
§ § §
Remember Y2K…? It was an interesting time to be sure, especially if you used a PC instead of a Mac – you never were quite sure whether the whole world was going to come to an end or not. It would be calamitous, some said – the sky would fall. Some pundits predicted the entire power grid would collapse and our bank machines would cease to spit out cash. So-called ‘experts’ said our credit repositories would cack and we’d all be left without a credit record. Okay, so there were some good things about Y2K!
Back in 1999 and into 2000 I worked as a film and video consultant for an online start-up company called Global Media.
Global Media started life as a strange amalgam of two separate companies: an Internet-integrated call centre based in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and a satellite television delivery service called Westcoast Wireless Cable based in the Fraser Valley area of B.C.
When a Canadian court announced in the Fall of 1997 that the distribution of American satellite signals to Canadian TV sets was illegal, Global Media sought other means of making their fortune. By combining the two fields of their businesses, the Internet as a broadcast delivery service seemed like a prescient business idea, at the very least a good gamble. Globalmedia dot com was born.
But this isn’t a story about Globalmedia, or really even a story about the Internet. It’s a story about the Golden Age of television and how it reflects, literally and figuratively, the tender beginnings of what became the World Wide Web. This story uses the history of television as a ‘mirror of analogy’, if you will, to compare how the two mediums grew into the communications behemoths that they are today. It also looks at the historical parallels and the cultural impact between the two, and the global influence they continue to wield. In the end, I show how and why the Internet has grown so much in such a short space of time and why it is no different from the way television, and before it, radio (and before it, the telegraph) developed over the last one hundred and fifty years. Make no mistake – there is less difference between these mediums than you think!
But for the moment, back to Globalmedia.
I had an interest in Globalmedia from the moment I first became aware of its existence – a professional interest as well as a financial one.
I had created and produced Canada’s first live television/Internet simulcast in the basement of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Vancouver studios in January 1997. In December of that year I was also among the first in the world to broadcast a network television program and stream it live on the Internet at the same time (Entrée To Asia: The Golden Thread – a sixty minute food and travel documentary for PBS).
So the fact that Globalmedia was now in the business of bringing streaming media to the masses was more than appealing to me. It was an area of the business that I was very keen on being a bigger part of. And so I joined their ranks in September 1999 – I believe I was employee number twelve.
When I was let go nine months later (fired actually – a whole other sordid story), there were over a hundred employees in the Vancouver office and three in New York City. I won’t go into all the tawdry political machinations and boardroom calisthenics that escalated during the preceding year, but suffice to say Globalmedia was headed for the Dot Com dustbin and pretty much everyone inside knew it; it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, only ‘when’.
A year after I was dumped, and the remaining staff numbered barely a handful, the doors were locked for the last time and the company went from being an international ‘media darling’ to just another local failed business statistic. The stock price had gone from over $9.00 a share to mere pennies in a few short months, and the dream of providing a B2B and B2C streaming media-rich experience burst like so many other web start-up bubbles that year.
But before all that happened, Veuve Clicquot, Cohibas, and Harley ‘Fat Boys’ ruled the roost with executive management. At its peak – early 2000 – Globalmedia was known throughout the world as one of only a handful of Internet companies that had the talent and technology to actually make the ‘theory’ of quality video and audio on the web a reality.
In January 2000 I was asked to be part of a delegation that was to travel to a world television conference in New Orleans. Globalmedia was debuting its ‘total streaming media solution’ to the world of television buyers and sellers at the annual NATPE convention. They had a big booth on the floor of the New Orleans Convention Center and a handful of the company’s brain trust were on hand to hawk, pitch and sell.
Michael Metcalfe, the company’s president and CEO at that time, and the company’s visionary, knew of my film and video background. Michael himself had dabbled in cinema as an actor and a producer and had the demeanour and attitude of a Hollywood high flyer. He asked me to go to the convention and write about my experiences for the company. He said he would publish my document on Globalmedia’s Intranet when I returned. He thought my experience and knowledge of television would assist the company, and its mostly younger staff, in its creative planning, and believed that my ability in putting this new ‘toy’ in context as an online entertainment delivery system would make for interesting reading. Who was I to disagree?
And so that’s exactly what I did. I went to New Orleans and hobbed with the nobs, wandered the cluttered halls of kiosks selling every conceivable TV show imaginable and sat in on many of the seminars being held by ‘experts’ delivering techspeak fire and brimstone on the future of television, Internet and the then all-elusive concept of convergence. I came away with new eyes, for sure, but also with a sense of familiarity, of déjà vu even… I’d seen and heard it all before.
The research I did in New Orleans was deep, wide and varied – how to collate it all, and most importantly make it understandable to the staff of Globalmedia was the challenge. Most of the staff was under the age of 25 – I was not. Not by a long shot! They had grown up with computers in the home as ubiquitous as toasters and steam irons. The debut of Apple’s iPod was still more than a year away, but Napster was for these ‘geeks’ akin to mainlining heroin. How could I make the subject of the Internet’s daring daylight raid on television’s territory interesting, compelling, and… well, real?
And then I remembered why the New Orleans experience had felt so familiar to me – I HAD seen it all before: the aging men wearing white buck shoes with brass buckles and sporting pencil-thin moustaches, their gold chains glistening under the gazillion-watt fluorescent lights, selling television shows like so many fake watches out of the trunks of Dodge DeSotos and Ford Fairlanes. Everything old was new again. I had my hook!
And technology had nothing to do with it.
Plus ça la change, plus c’est la même chose.
Since its birth as a mass medium in post-World War II North America, television has managed to develop to the point where it is the most ubiquitous and influential medium the world has ever seen. It is a medium possessed of right brain/left brain conflicts. One minute enjoyable and passive, the next infuriating and interactive (you throw the remote at the TV set!) It is perhaps the only medium where entertainment and annoyance go hand-in-hand with information and avoidance.
I wrote this document as a comparative study between television and the Internet. The technology and the attitude isn’t all that different and content is content regardless of how it’s delivered. Bandwidth was an issue – how fast, how clear, how big – but those wrinkles were being dealt with, albeit slowly. The early days of radio and television had its winners and losers, it’s mavens and crooks – the Internet as it was growing was no different. But both mediums relied on one thing to thrive and survive; both needed content. Without it, one was a box of jiggly lines with plastic dials, the other nothing more than a bulky e-mail aggregator.
On a hunch, I submitted this document to my publisher as a query just for the hell of it, hoping to find an editor who thought there might be some interest in expanding it into a ‘quickie’ book.
The response I received was quite enthusiastic. They were willing to pay me a lot of money if I could deliver a complete manuscript within six months – they would publish four months after that, a quick turnaround.
I then did something fairly stupid – not the first time for me, likely not the last. I said to them, “I need another month to flesh-out the document. If you still like it, I’ll do it.”
Okay, they said. And then I dove into the deep end of the online pool and continued my research.
There’s more to this – there’s always more – but I’ll leave that till the end.
First, a disclaimer. Globalmedia com no longer exists, at least not as the company I originally worked for. Typing that URL will take you to a completely different company that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Globalmedia of this story.
If you’re interested in reading more about Globalmedia and its demise, these online articles will tell you a lot (though not everything by a longshot!)
- Award-Winning Broadcast Solution
- Globalmedia Divests
- Globalmedia In Trouble
- Globalmedia Dies – May 24, 2001
You will see references to the ‘Player’, and the ‘Globalmedia Player’ throughout these posts. This was the company’s raison d’être – a RealMedia (remember them?!) software-based media player that the company redesigned and branded with our clients’ logos and livery. Household names such as Playboy, NFL Films, Martha Stewart and World Wrestling Federation (pre-WWE) were some of the big-ticket clients we had.
Finally, and most importantly in terms of context, keep in mind as you read these posts that this was researched and written throughout January, February and March of 2000, more than fifteen years ago now. A lot has changed since then – a lot – in both television and the Internet. This was pre-YouTube, a time when quality video was 10fps, and postage-stamp sized if you were one of the lucky ones to have MIDband modem speeds. For me to provide a listing of all the innovations, technical achievements and apps that grew out of this period and are now as plentiful and popular as fall leaves, would require another weighty tome. So, the pop culture references and the statistics, etc. are of the time, but the predictions, observances and thoughts, for the most part, have come to pass. There are a few holes, some chronological gaps, and some hackneyed references, but I think you’ll find that the basic premise still holds: television and the Internet are joined at the hip, one feeds the other – indeed RELIES on the other – and the day when one REPLACES the other is NOT far off. Cable cutters, anyone…?
And with that, I’ll have Professor Peabody crank up the ‘Wayback Machine’ commencing with Part 1. Enjoy. And please, leave your comments and let me know what you think. Cheers!
# # #