Moguls talk of tough cycles in media, tech realms

Execs examine pressures, changing tides at N.Y. conference

Tech moguls examined the agony and ecstasy of the business spotlight Wednesday in a field they said lends itself to quick shifts from public adulation to excoriation.

“One day you’re the smartest guy in the world, the next day you’re the dumbest. It goes with the territory,” said AOL founder Steve Case, who fell from grace after AOL and Time Warner merged more than a decade ago and broadband took the place of AOL’s core dial-up business.

“You can’t react to short-term pressure from the press and investors. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong. You try to build an iconic company, but listen to what smart people are telling you. It’s a balancing act,” said Case, who launched an investment firm called Revolution and the Case Foundation and sometimes serves as an adviser to President Obama.

Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason has more immediate problems, as rumors circulated that the company’s board may consider ousting him at a meeting today.

“Groupon stock is down 80% since it went public. It would be weird if the board wasn’t considering (if I am) the right guy to do the job,” he said at the Ignition conference, held at Gotham’s Time Warner Center and sponsored by Business Insider, in an unusually candid exchange for the CEO of a company still worth $2.7 billion. Mason said he is the right guy.

He was interviewed by Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget, a former top stock analyst who left Merrill Lynch under a black cloud in 2001 for calling Amazon “a piece of junk” in an email.

“I was the noted analyst and I had a tremendous fall where everyone was dumping all over me. I could feel the weight of the sort of mass hatred. When you go home, do you feel that?” Blodget asked Mason.

“I don’t know what you’re looking for me to say,” Mason responded.

“Does it suck?” pressed Blodget.

“No, it’s awesome, Henry.”

Two other former toppers – onetime AOL CEO Jon Miller and ex-Yahoo CEO Ross Levinsohn — both said that their next ventures would be in video, but sparred about where and how.

“It’s really hard to start and grow new companies,” Miller said.

“It’s really hard to transform big, existing companies,” observed Levinsohn.

Both execs had stints at Time Warner and News Corp. and said big media doesn’t invest enough to excel in the digital space.

“When I was at News Corp., Mr. Murdoch asked me about a search company that was for sale and I said if you are prepared to spend $2 billion a year for R&D, we should buy it. How much do you spend on films, and pilots that don’t get made,” said Levinsohn. “There’s not a great-enough appreciation in Silicon Valley for how hard it is to create great content, and not enough appreciation in media about how hard it is to create great technology.”

Levinsohn left Yahoo in July after he was passed over for the top job, which went to former Google exec Merissa Mayer.

“I don’t have any bad feelings about it. The parting was fine,” Levinsohn said. “I miss the people I worked with. I am still a shareholder, so I am happy the stock has gone up (but) I’m disappointed that I’m not sitting there.”

The tech-heavy crowd at Ignition spent time ripping traditional television and falling ratings this season, warning of cord cutting and the new “cord-never” generation of college grads who skip cable subscriptions entirely. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes was the sole defender of traditional media on hand.

“Aggregate ratings for cable networks are up,” Bewkes insisted. “Here’s a better business than the Internet — television.”

“All those people who are saying, ‘I’m not going to pay for cable’ — the people we are theorizing about who don’t want to pay for anything — it’s a myth. They think everything is free, but as they go along” they change, he said.

“Cable is relatively cheap. They pay $5 for a coffee. Cable is $2 a day and it’s the best programming anywhere in the world,” Bewkes said.

The Time Warner topper said he thinks a true AppleTV set, if and when it comes, is sure to have Apple’s signature superb interface and easy navigation so it will be a great tool for viewers. “When we’re talking about 200 channels of really good content, I think that’s great. But I don’t think it’s the only one,” he said. “There’s no exclusivity, no digital intermediary that can get exclusive rights. There’s just too many of them.”

And Bewkes said doubts a tech giant like Google would want to buy Time Warner for access to content.

“I don’t see how it helps them. They’re doing their business. If you were running a search business globally, why would you want to buy 20% of the content? Because you’ve got to have all of it.”

He said Time Warner will have an announcement “soon” regarding CNN, where Jeff Zucker is expected to be taking the reins. Bewkes defended the net, praising its election-night coverage and noting that it isn’t in business just for ratings.

Bewkes said the other hotly anticipated announcement, Barry Meyer’s successor at Warner Bros. wouldn’t come until next year.