Titans talking tech

Eisner, Diller expound on new media

Michael Eisner and Barry Diller bickered playfully like a media mogul version of “The Odd Couple” during the opening session of the Forbes MEET (Media Electronic Entertainment Technology) conference in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.

Eisner posed the questions during the hourlong session, and Diller played the dot-com sage. Eisner began by asking Diller whether he expects to see more traditional media companies buying new-media startups, like News Corp.’s purchase of MySpace last year.

“It doesn’t matter who buys what,” Diller said. Because the Internet makes it possible for anyone to self-publish and attract a sizable audience, he said, controlling the chokepoints of distribution is no longer a viable strategy. Diller added that while big media companies may continue shopping, “as they get more diversified, they get less well managed.”

Traditional media companies, Diller said, historically have “been based on being dictatorial and telling people how they’ll do business with them and exercising every point of leverage at all points in the process.”

In the new era, Diller suggested, media companies would have to “master this new form of plenty, rather than scarcity.”

Eisner chided Diller for building a new-media company, InterActiveCorp, that is a collection of 60 brands. If Diller had focused on building just one brand, Eisner suggested, his market cap might be higher.

“We are an integrated conglomerate, and we like that,” Diller responded.

Diller said while he saw the continuing value of local TV stations, he’s less convinced about the value of “the single-channel, general entertainment approach” of a national network today. Instead, Diller said he expects that channels would need to have a tighter focus on specific topical niches and audiences.

Eisner seemed more bullish than his former ABC and Paramount colleague about the potential for user-generated content to continue to attract viewers, noting that talent agencies had begun signing hot Internet personalities.

“There aren’t that many talented people,” Diller countered, “whose creative ability is going to resonate with a lot of people.”

Eisner noted that the Internet makes it easier to ferret out a talented storyteller in Paris or Eastern Europe.

“I don’t think there are great singers, musicians and writers in garrets somewhere doing great work that no one finds,” Diller said.

Toward the end of the session, Eisner asked a question about his old sparring partner at Disney — Pixar and Apple chief Steve Jobs. He is “out on his next mission — to connect the laptop to the television set,” Eisner said.

“I don’t know if it’ll happen in two years, and I don’t know if Steve Jobs will do it,” Diller said, “but there’s no question that there will be a system in the home that receives all this data coming in on this pipe” and forwards it to a big plasma screen or a handheld device. The system also will make it easy to engage in transactions while viewing videos, predicted Diller, who owns e-commerce companies such as Ticketmaster and the travel site Expedia.

Both Diller and Eisner said they were advocates for “network neutrality,” a legislative issue the pair agreed would prevent larger companies from dominating the Internet.

Eisner, a patron of star architects when he was chairman of Disney, noted that sometimes bad things can happen to a company when it builds a high-profile HQ; InterActiveCorp has just completed a $138 million headquarters building in Manhattan designed by Frank Gehry. “Are you nervous that it’s bad luck?” Eisner asked.

“Yeah, I’m superstitious,” Diller replied. But “we’re a young company in the capital of the world. Let’s build something that is as new as we are and as aspirational as we are.”

The Diller-and-Eisner show was followed by a panel discussion on “The Next Video Revolution,” in which YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley unsurprisingly said he didn’t believe Google had overpaid by swapping $1.6 billion in Google stock for Hurley’s year-old startup.

Forbes managing editor Dennis Kneale opened the conference Tuesday afternoon by observing that “the tech world and Hollywood don’t trust each other,” and while studios, nets and record labels often launch lawsuits against new technologies such as Grokster and ReplayTV, many tech entrepreneurs feel that the very concept of copyright is outmoded.

About 200 people were in the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom at the confab’s start. Paramount chief Brad Grey was slated to address the audience over dinner Tuesday night. Conference, held this fall for the first time, concludes today.

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