Three Minutes With Mark Cuban

Photograph: Doug Hopfer
Mark Cuban is one of the original Internet millionaires. He founded Broadcast.com along with a friend in the mid-1990s and made a fortune selling the company to Yahoo during the dot-com boom years. Since then, he has continued to keep his eye on the future of technology, founding HDNet, the first national network to broadcast all of its programming in 1080i resolution, the highest-quality format of high-definition. When he's not planning for the future of HDTV, he spends his time running his NBA franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, and will star in a reality show debuting on ABC on September 13, called The Benefactor.

PCW: What is HDNet?

Cuban: HDNet is kind of a USA or TNT or TBS type network that has a wide variety of content, from sports--we have the NHL and major league soccer and auto racing--to interview shows like Roy Firestone. We just had an interview that got widely picked up that Roy did with Mike Tyson.

If you go to HD.net you'll see our whole schedule.

PCW: Is it one channel?

Cuban: It's two channels, actually. HDNet and HDNet Movies. On the movies channel we take movies that were either shot in high-def or were shot in 35 millimeter that we think are good movies and put them out there. It's just a wide variety of movies, but the key is they're all in original aspect ratio. They're all the best possible transfers because we're really fanatics about it. They were originally shot in high-def so that people are seeing really good movies, but they're seeing them for the first time in the original aspect ratio with 5.1 sound. Our tagline is "Movies Like You've Never Seen Them Before." We'll have everything from My Fair Lady to Godsend, which just came out from Lionsgate.

PCW: Can you show a 35mm movie in HD?

Cuban: You can convert it over because there's enough pixel information. But 16mm movies or stuff shot in digital video or on videotape, or movies that had their special effects done on videotape to save money look like crap. The newer movies are shot in 35mm or HD.

PCW: Who has access to HDNet?

Cuban: It's available everywhere. We have pretty much every cable company and every satellite company except for Comcast, but we're in discussions with them.

PCW: Can I access HDNet if I don't have an HDTV?

Cuban: No.

PCW: As the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks franchise, you're known for the technology you use to interact with the Mavericks fans. You have a blog, and you welcome e-mail from fans. Is it really you who writes the blog and sends e-mail back to fans?

Cuban: Oh yeah, that's only me. No one else writes but me.

PCW: And you respond to e-mails from fans personally?

Cuban: I've been doing that since day one. I don't answer every one of them because I get a lot of requests that aren't always possible. If a fan tells me to trade a player or pick up a player, I can't always do what they say. But I do read every single one of them. I can be sitting in the bathroom with my Sidekick, and I'll be reading e-mail.

PCW: You're known for being pretty outspoken, having been fined very heavily by the NBA for on-court outbursts during games. Do you ever regret the things you've said?

Cuban: Not at all. Not even a little bit. It's just the nature of the industry. It's not all that much different than technology. It's like standards in technology, it's kind of like HD-DVD versus Blu-ray. It all becomes very public and that's how people negotiate. You try to disseminate the information to as many people as possible and give them a reason to offer their opinion and offer their feedback.

And the NBA's the same way. If you just try to do it behind closed doors and meet individually, you'd never get it done. That would never be enough to motivate people to get involved.

PCW: You mentioned you use a Sidekick at home to read your e-mail. What other computing devices do you use?

Cuban: I have two Sony VAIO laptops in front of me. One is a backup, one is a backup for a backup. Then I have a D-Link access point. I've got an old Snap Quantum drive, that is now like my third-level backup. I've got a removable 80GB drive that I also use as a backup. You can tell I get kind of freaky about backups. I've learned. I just bought a new Hewlett-Packard M1090n Media Center PC, which has the removable 160GB [Personal Media] drive. The reason I bought it was to do some testing, because I want to be able to take HDNet content, and see if we can distribute it on these removable drives--just jump past DVD as a distribution mechanism.

PCW: You mean distribute high-definition content on removable hard drives instead of on the next-generation DVD technologies you mentioned, HD-DVD and Blu-ray?

Cuban: Hard drives are far more efficient and more capable of storing future content than HD-DVD or Blu-ray. No question that those discs right now are smaller (physically), but they top out at a 50GB capacity. Drives don't have such limitations. They are increasing in storage and decreasing in size and price. Heck, it's not inconceivable that you could fit a 2-hour, high-definition movie on a small keychain drive within five years.

PCW: What kind of future plans do you have for HDNet?

Cuban: Right now we're just working on maximizing the opportunity there, in terms of over-the-air TV distribution. We're also looking at redistributing our content on distributable media, as I mentioned. We'll support HD-DVD, we'll support Blu-ray, we're not fans of copy protection, so everything we do is in the clear. I think that's a big joke, all the piracy concerns.

PCW: When you say redistributing your content on hard drives or other removable media, what will that mean to me as a viewer at home?

Cuban: Well hopefully you'll be able to buy or rent a hard drive with 5, 10, 20 movies on it. And you'll use your DVR, your PC, or your Media Center PC, and just through a 1394 port or a USB 2.0 port, you'll connect the hard drive. Or we might do a deal with Netflix or Wal-Mart where every month you get a new hard drive loaded with movies, and then you ship back your old ones, just like you do now with Netflix, when you ship back your DVDs when you're finished watching them. Why not just ship back the hard drive?

PCW: When do you think HDTV will be mainstream?

Cuban: Well, the one thing you need to know is you're not seeing any announcements from RCA, JVC, or any TV manufacturer announcing new analog TV plans. They're all getting out of the business. It's almost like a process of transition, like going from 286 to 386 to 486 to Pentium, in that you think what you have is good enough until you see the price points of the new stuff fall to a point where you say, why not?

PCW: And you think that will happen?

Cuban: Oh yeah, there's no question. Anybody who's buying a big-screen TV today, you can't even buy an analog TV. But I think people are waiting on plasma and I think within the next two Christmases you'll start to see plasmas under $1000.

PCW: What kind of TV do you have at home?

Cuban: Which one? I've got a Zenith 60-inch plasma, I've got a Sony wide-screen, it's 32 inches because I've got it into my office. I've got an RCA 27-inch that I use as my PC monitor on the HP. The other thing people forget is every single PC monitor is HD compatible. So once we can start shipping the HD content on a hard drive, then everybody can watch it right on the regular PC. I've got an HD TiVo from DirecTV that I use, and then I've got the HP Media Center PC. But I don't use it with the traditional media center capabilities and the remote control. I just use it testing on the HD--I just got it, so I'm still playing with it.

PCW: What kinds of future technologies, not necessarily HDTV related, are you looking into?

Cuban: If you put aside biotech, because I don't really know anything about biotech, there's ultrawideband and there's some fiber-to-the-home things that I think are interesting. Right now, we're kind of in an application lull. We're at a point of diminishing returns with processor speed, so the PC industry and the technology industry have made audio/video in the home their holy grail for the next few years--whether it's faster wireless inside the home, whether it's a different distribution mechanism, whether it's HD in the PC, the media center stuff, so that's kind of the sweet spot right now.

But I think longer term, the biggest upside is going to come from mega-bandwidth to the home. When you start getting over 100 megabits [per second], it changes things; 5, 10, 20, even 30 [megabits per second] just lets you do traditional applications faster--it doesn't really open the door to new applications. But when you start getting past 100 megabits, then you can start doing things like take a consumer high-def camera or just a regular digital video camera for that matter, plug it into to a PC, and at 100 megabits you're going to get a crystal-clear resolution sending it back to your doctor.

For the elderly, I could see insurance companies investing in buying a video setup, which would enable the whole house or an apartment with cameras to keep an eye on the elderly or to set up a checkup PC where you just have a high-resolution Web cam and you have the person fill out a questionnaire online and have a doctor on the other side doing two-way video with them. If you can't get out of your house, that's the next best thing to being there.

PCW: How do you think that sort of technology would work for home entertainment?

Cuban: Well, home entertainment, you start to make all your devices wireless, which makes things a lot easier, and your home starts to look different. Just like on a mobile basis, our lives have changed because of mobile phones and two-ways and the like, I think the ability to have TVs and just place them anywhere, our homes will start to look different.

You might not necessarily have as much shelf space, you won't have the cabinets, you won't have the special media center furniture. Things will be on the wall, things will be moved. I think that will change. I think screens will get bigger and cheaper. TVs now are just PCs with remote controls instead of keyboards.

PCW: What led you into the HDTV field?

Cuban: Because everybody said that it wasn't going to happen. I looked at a high-def television and I saw a PC. And it's got a processor, it's got software, it's got an operating system, it's got a digital screen. And I thought you know what? High-def televisions at the time, in '99, 2000 timeframe, were $8000 to $10,000 and up. And the whole entertainment industry was saying the prices aren't going to come down, no one's going to buy an $8000 television.

I saw a PC and I knew the prices were coming down. Because everybody else was finding reasons why not to create content in the high-def and why not to create channels that were full time for high-def, I saw the opportunity to do it. And so far the prediction's been right on. Price points have fallen like a rock and it hasn't been as easy for traditional media companies to switch to high-def, which has opened the door for us.

PCW: What do you think is the best thing to see in HD?

Cuban: Sports and movies and news. I think news is the best, because news right now is all about talking heads. It's "I'm in Iraq and the bombs are blowing up behind me." Whereas with our news, we have a show called HDNet World Report where we put cameras in all kinds of hot spots--Iraq, wherever. And when we show a firefight or some sort of bombing, we don't have the reporter say anything. They just say, "We're in Iraq, we're in Baghdad, and there's a firefight going on, I'll shut up and let you watch it." And being able to see it in wide-screen high resolution with 5.1 sound, if you have a tank firing, you hear it coming out of one ear and see it leaving out of the other ear. It's just incredible. Just to be able to see it like you're actually sitting there is amazing.

PCW: While we're on the subject of TV, what can you tell us about your upcoming reality show, The Benefactor?

Cuban: First, I'll tell you it was all shot in high-def. It'll be the first reality show that was shot and seen in high-def, so that was cool and that was one of the reasons I did it. The show's about success. What does it take to be successful? Everybody has a dream--to write the great American novel, to write the great American script--and everybody always questions, do I have what it takes or why is someone more successful than I am. And so what the show's about is teaching those lessons through a reality show. We took 16 people and we put them in a house, and I created a series of tests that I thought reflected what it took to be successful.

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