Wednesday, January 17, 2007

My Favorite Books on the Business History of TV

Too often, when I turn off the TV to read a book, I read a book about TV. (Sick.)

Most of what's going on right now in TV has its roots in technology advances and business warfare going back more than a hundred years. Even companies spawned yesterday in the eras of the personal computer, the Web, (including Web 2.0) tend to follow patterns that were set beginning in the late nineteenth century and on through the twentieth. The focus of most of these books is not on technology per se, but on how businesses maneuvered to productize, market, and profit from technology.

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes
I picked up on this after Jonathan Schwartz mentioned it in an early ScobleShow. This is the definitive paradigm of everything going on today. You'll recognize all the staples of what your company is dealing with: from killer demos (except in those days killer demos involved actual death), to keeping the investors hopeful while you're trying to get the product done, to patent battles, event marketing, lavish parties, trade shows, lobbying for favorable government regulations, all the way to (apologies to Guy Kawasaki) employing the first evangelist. There's even a precedent for Valleywag, as this was the era of Yellow Journalism.

The arena is the contest between proponents AC (Tesla and Westinghouse) and DC (Edison) to dominate the coming world of electrical transmission. This was the first platform war of the age of electricity. The evangelist, Harold Brown, was a DC zealot who makes even the most rabid Mac fanboy seem nonchalant by comparison. Brown helped Edison position DC as the safe system by conducting public demos where he electrocuted animals up to the size of an elephant with AC. Not stopping there, he lobbied to get the Westinghouse AC current adopted for New York's electric chair. (The description of how the first human execution by electric chair was botched is on a par with recent news from Iraq.) There was even a move to get "to Westinghouse" adopted as a verb (à la "to Google" or "to TiVo") meaning, in this case, "to execute by electrocution." It didn't take.

Any book that gives us insight into Tesla's triumphs and tragedies is worth spending time with. Bonus factoid: how much horse manure had to be removed daily from New York streets in the late nineteenth century. (And New Yorkers thought there was an odor last week!)

The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, by Eric Barnouw
This three volume set takes us from the telephone through the dominance of the big TV networks in 1970. It offers insights into the rivalries among the networks, between the networks and their affiliates, and patterns of adoption across the country and the rise of advertising. (There's also a one-volume condensed version by Barnouw, Tube of Plenty) Fascinating today is the way Hollywood and the record industry danced with the broadcasters, holding them off, later embracing, even dominating. This history is repeating itself on iTunes, YouTube etc.

Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business by Mark Robichaux
How did cable move from the Community Antenna business that helped rural residents bring in a decent signal to becoming the dominant Internet Service and TV service provider in the nation? Robichaux traces much of it to the insights and drive of one man, John Malone, who built TCI (later sold to AT&T, then to Comcast). It's a great story of how a smart and scrappy startup can play the game against the establishment and win, changing the world in the process.

Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way by Ken Auletta
Auletta (who continues to cover media for the New Yorker) takes up the story of how the big three networks floundered in the early days of cable. It's an inside view of how dominant, established corporations try to cope with revolutionary shifts that undermine the foundations of their business. We know now how CBS, NBC, and ABC made it through the cable era.

Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV by Shelly Palmer
This is the first history of our current revolution. The rise of net-based video and it's challenge to the established broadcast, cable, and satellite businesses. Because Shelly is writing from the early stages of the revolution he doesn't have the ability to call winners and losers as the previously mentioned authors do. But this is the best and most comprehensive overview of what's changing today

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