Cuban, Eisner at SXSWi: Net's still a video jungle

Billionaire entrepreneur interviews the former Disney CEO at South by Southwest Interactive about his new Web endeavor, <i>The All-for-Nots</i>. And Eisner even has kind words for Steve Jobs.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--In a packed conference room at the Austin Convention Center, two high-profile figures in new media took the stage for a highly anticipated interview, and neither one was Mark Zuckerberg.

Rather, it was billionaire entrepreneur and former Dancing with the Stars contestant Mark Cuban interviewing former Disney CEO and current Web video entrepreneur Michael Eisner at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

"I'm the moderator, which I'm not used to being," Cuban quipped. "We learned a lot from watching the Mark Zuckerberg interview," he added jokingly, "so I'll just talk about me."

But for the most part (minus a lengthy monologue about the difficulties of interactivity on the Web), Cuban left the floor to Eisner to talk about The All-for-Nots, a new Web-based video series created by his new-media production company, Vuguru.

The series, which he describes as "a Spinal Tap-ish kind of rock 'n' roll thing" about a fictional indie-rock band from Brooklyn, was created in conjunction with the production team behind the popular video show The Burg.

It's a far cry from his days at the helm of Disney. But, the media mogul said, "I like experiments."

"Those people working now in (online video) are going to be the Steven Spielbergs of the next generation."
--Michael Eisner

Eisner's investment group, Tornante, launched Vuguru a year ago along with its inaugural series, the teen drama Prom Queen. Despite promotion on MySpace.com and Eisner's name value, the former Disney chief admitted several months later that the endeavor "didn't make money" and that he believed Web video was still several years away from profitability.

Yet he's moving forward with The All-for-Nots. "One of the things that we thought would be interesting in my company was to see if the time had come for story-driven professional content to find a place on the Internet, possibly be monetized, to see where the business was heading," Eisner said. "It's been an interesting experience, and we've learned a lot."

Eisner told Cuban and the audience that he's pushing ahead in online video because it's going to pay to be a pioneer. "All of a sudden, we're going to wake up, and professionally driven content...for the Internet is going to explode," Eisner said. Later, he added, "Those people working now in it are going to be the Steven Spielbergs of the next generation."

Michael Eisner
Michael Eisner

Right now, though, online video is a land grab constantly in flux. There are no rules yet, Eisner said, to the point where company strategies can change erratically and make the process all the more complicated. For example, he said, the distribution strategy for The All-for-Nots will be different from Prom Queen because potential content distribution partners didn't present them with the same deals.

"Every time you go to a MySpace or MSN or YouTube or Google, every month, they change the strategy," Eisner said. "People actually paid us money (for Prom Queen)." With The All-for-Nots, he explained, some of the same content partners had wanted Vuguru to pay them and then get the money back through advertising revenue sharing.

So the content partners this time--which include Bebo, Imeem, YouTube, Hulu, Veoh (which counts Eisner among its board of directors), and Mark Cuban's HDNet--will be a different set, but Eisner said he doesn't care, as long as it's distributed to plenty of eyeballs. "We have to go it any way we can go. We start at the top, we start at the bottom, we start at the sides." That's certainly start-up rhetoric.

The lack of a central distribution channel for online video, Eisner said, makes grabbing eyeballs even more difficult. "Veoh (and) Hulu are development platforms that are becoming kind of the TiVo of the Internet, trying to clarify it," he explained. "Eventually, we'll try to organize the Internet onto your home television screen. Right now, I know it seems mind-bogglingly difficult."

As he continued, he had a few kind words for Apple czar Steve Jobs, of whom Eisner has famously been more than a bit critical in the past. "Eventually, there will be a few more Steve Jobses around the world who make technology simple."

Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban

Eisner talked about Vuguru's strategy of finding existing "indie" video entrepreneurs on the Web and providing them with big-money resources. "(I) find the people who are doing interesting things on their own," he said. "I want those people, because I'll put up a little bit more money and hope that what has always happened in the past will happen in the future, which is that somebody will watch it, and that will drive viewership to our door, and it's easier because there are a lot of doors out there."

Cuban asked Eisner if he thought traditional media would ever "get" online content. "I think they should participate, and they will eventually be very successful," Eisner said. "These people are not stupid. They understand what's happening. The business, though--the economics are so small." For an emerging field without huge profits (yet), it might not be up their alley.

"The people that are like me," Eisner mused, "old mogul-type people, those are probably the people to stay away from. They've got three beach houses and four wives."

Mark Cuban cracked a joke alluding to New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, currently embroiled in a sex scandal, and then let Eisner continue: "For them to get in a van with two other people, and stay in a Days Inn, and travel around the country and shoot (video) on a shoestring is hard."

But Eisner still aligns himself with those old-media moguls in many ways, as he revealed when he fielded a question from the audience about what he thinks of Creative Commons, "remix culture," and alternatives to traditional copyright.

"I have a long history, obviously, of believing in copyright," he said. "I think basically what separated this country from the rest of the world was patents and copyrights. President Lincoln introduced a lot of this, fought for (the idea that) to pay people for their intellectual work was no different than paying them for their physical work. And nobody would think twice about paying someone for their physical work."

See more stories in CNET News.com's coverage of SXSWi.