When did the "magisterial mogul" Lew Wasserman decide that he ought to be in the TV business? Some have pointed to 1958, when his agency, MCA, paid a then-whopping
$50 million for Paramount's pre-1948 theatrical library and another $12 million for the Universal lot, which would produce a stable of TV staples. Others say it was 1950, when he formed Revue Productions to supply Gene Autry and Roy Rogers horse operas to TV in abundance. In fact, it was 1939. Then the top ad and promo man at Music Corp. of America, Wasserman was one of only three people in Hollywood with a TV. It was one of those mirrored contraptions with a viewing area that measured about 4 inches square, programmed only with experimental fare from the Don Lee Network. That, Wasserman once told us, was when he decided that "television was going to be a market for our products."
Thirty years later, when MCA was supplying nearly 20% of network TV programming, Wasserman saw clearly that the nation's appetite for TV would not be sated by just three broadcast networks. "The American consumer is demonstrating quite dramatically that he wants total convenience," he said, using a fast-food analogy. "That desire on the part of the consumer must logically apply to his entertainment as much as to his eating habits—that is, that he wants to watch a particular program when he wants to watch it or view it a second or third time."
Wasserman, who died last week at 89, was easily identifiable in his later years by those oversized, black-rimmed glasses. It is our belief that he needed them to ease the strain of looking just a little further into TV's future than the rest of us. That vision will be missed.
Pay me now?
While we are talking about having the vision to see into TV's future, when MSTV's David Donovan comes calling with his proposal for a broadcast lab and a request for funds, broadcasters should reach for their wallets. Some broadcasters have suggested that such a lab is crucial to their future if they want to remain competitive in the digital age. In the same breath, those same broadcasters say MSTV could have a hard time getting them to pony up the bucks. We certainly hope not. It takes money to develop those killer apps, and the standards and technology to support them. When Donovan talks about a broadcast lab, he is talking about nothing less than the reinvention of broadcast TV. He and his backers envision a medium that could do everything cable does—HDTV, multiple channels, data, even interactivity—but without the wires. Unless broadcasters rally and come up with a unified plan for exploiting their digital spectrum, we fear that the
TV-station business will slowly fade away. No matter what the bean counters in corporate say, even in tough times, investment in the future is not discretionary spending.