AUSTIN, Texas--Was it caused by all the hot air?
The debate had just begun in a fourth-floor ballroom at the Austin Convention Center between billionaire Mark Cuban and Boxee founder Avner Ronen, where hundreds of people had showed up for their a highly anticipated panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Friday evening. Then the emergency lights started flashing and everyone was told by a voice recording to evacuate the room because "an emergency has been reported."
"Keep going!" audience members shouted at the pair of media execs, who were appearing onstage for the first time since getting in a heated fight on their respective blogs last year. Others joked that Cuban must have staged the evacuation so as to avoid a debate with irreverent crowd favorite Ronen, who has quite the cult following among the SXSWi set judging by the "Team Avner!" remarks dotting Twitter and Foursquare.
It appears to have been a false alarm, as about 10 minutes later people started filing back in and the official SXSW Twitter account confirmed that there was no emergency. Panels would continue and run late, the festival Twitter account confirmed.
CNET is still attempting to learn the exact source of the evacuation. Glitch? Prankster? A sign that it was time for all the pasty nerds to take off their orange-and-lime-green badges and head to happy hour?
But if anybody in the Austin Convention Center was going to start a figurative fire, it would be Cuban and Ronen. Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, escalated into the billionaire ranks after he sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo in one of the dot-com era's most famous billion-dollar deals that ultimately went nowhere. He has since founded the HDNet cable brand and become one of YouTube's (and free online video in general) harshest critics. Ronen's Boxee media center software has become one of the digital video industry's foremost enfants terrible, and Ronen's bull-in-a-china-shop attitude has made him a hero among geeks and an object of critique for pundits who say he'll never be able to ink the deals that Boxee needs to succeed.
"This was an amazing trip for Mark on his jet, I guess?" Ronen said of the Dallas-based billionaire at the beginning of the talk, before the fire alarm cleared it out.
"Pretty easy," Cuban replied.
"We have an RV," Ronen said proudly of Boxee, and then began asking Cuban why he doesn't put HDNet online when so many people can't access it because their cable providers don't carry it.
"We have 16 million subscribers who do get HDNet, watch it regularly, and--something I'm sure you haven't heard of--they pay us money!" Cuban retorted. "And you know what else, profitable! We make money, you want me to explain that to you?...Some companies think you win when you raise money, but that's not how it works." He had a point: Boxee is pre-revenue.
But Ronen's retort was just as quick. "You learn that at Broadcast.com?"
That's when the emergency lights started flashing. But Ronen and Cuban were back at it once the emergency had been declared a false alarm--thankfully, at this point, the only flames sparked at SXSWi were the kinds in arguments.