Monday, January 10th, 2000
NEW YORK—Walking through the canyons of Times Square at sunset, I’m struck how this part of New York is doing its best to head into the Blade Runner future. Now, a couple of weeks past the celebration of whatever-the-heck-that-was, my neck creaks as I look at the towering displays of electronic frenzy that light up the rain-soaked streets. Signs, logos, models, slogans—brands blast and flicker and sparkle downwards from dizzying heights—just add a few hovercraft police cars and an advertising blimp or two and Philip K. Dick’s vision will be fully realized, more vividly than Arthur C. Clarke’s more sanitary future. Cultures swirl, stock prices and headlines cascade past, and tourists like me gawk at it all.
There’s the home of ABC’s Good Morning America, looking dazzling yet somewhat smaller than on TV (as everything does). A gargantuan Tom Brokaw (he’s live!) tells me a silent story from a huge screen across the way, and over there at MTV’s splashy home in the Viacom building, they’re doing uh something that involves bright TV lights.
Media? You’re soaking in it!
Of course, I didn’t come to this much colder city to bask in the glow of transmitted pop culture. I do have a day job sometimes, and on this day, it was doing design work for Time Warner. (That’s my disclaimer.) Time Warner: a media company so large it swallowed up Ted Turner’s TBS/CNN empire without much of a belch a few years ago. A company so massive, I’d be hard pressed to tick off the various components, household names all HBO, Sports Illustrated, CNN, Time ah, forget it. Huge. Huge, I say.
And I picked a heck of a day—Monday—to show up. The Time Warner folks in New York were—to say the least—preoccupied with the news that their massive company had been bought, absorbed, assimilated, by AOL—America Online.
Yes, they were calling it a merger, but the numbers don’t lie. The internet firm bought the mass media company with roots stretching back to the Luce family and the staid first issues of Time and Life magazine.
Resistance is futile, and these folks weren’t resisting. They were either celebrating or shaking their heads in amazement. Steve Case, AOL’s chairman, who bragged to a Wall Street Journal reporter a decade ago that he’d be running the biggest media company in the 21st Century, seems to have engineered a realization of just that dream. AOL’s previous swallowing of huge internet firms like Netscape and CompuServe (remember them?) seemed like big deals at the time, but it pales to this step, touted as the first merger of (say it with me) the new century, or, as Case is promoting it, "The Internet Century." There is no denying that this is just the latest sign that the internet and mass media—both formed in the tradition of a symphony of lots of different voices coming from lots of different places—are now controlled and owned by fewer and larger enterprises. Steve Case will get up and explain why this is a good thing, but it’s a sell we’ve heard from Bill Gates before.
And Ted Turner, once a struggling entrepreneur with an inherited billboard company and a barely functional UHF TV station, is (no surprise) now richer than ever, and today he described his delight in this merger as comparable to his first sexual experience.
Leave it to Ted to explain why these deals really happen.