Commentary

Beware the Tucker Reaction

Back in 1988, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas released "Tucker, The Man and His Dream." The film was based on the real life Preston Tucker who, shortly after World War II, invented one of the sleekest, most technologically advanced and most affordable cars. Threatened by all this progress, the Big Three automakers, with some help from their regulatory and legislative friends, effectively squashed the product, and Tucker, into a small foot note of automotive history.

As film, to quote Alfred Hitchcock, is "like real life with all the boring parts taken out," there was a good deal of debate at the time that the film over-simplified a complicated story. But whether there was a pro-active conspiracy to destroy Tucker or Tucker destroyed himself, or something in between, it is clear from the historical record that the auto industry's first answer was to seek to stop him with all means at their disposal.

Their second answer was to try to build, with great imperfection, a Tucker of their own. In the end, the comfort of doing what they already knew best trumped the costs associated with change and innovation. And we all know what the Japanese made of that mind frame a couple of decades later.

As the music industry arrests file sharers, as the cable industry lobbies Washington claiming that basic cable is better for the customer even if they don't want 80 percent of what they are forced to buy, as the television industry declares that skipping ads on TiVos is illegal, as the movie industry fights to hold onto traditional distribution, I have thought a great deal about that movie.

At one level, the owners of content and distribution have a fair concern. BitTorrent and the other file sharers are about ease, convenience, community, and the rule of the individual as the aggregator - choosing what he or she wants, when and how he or she wants it. This is all good, if not inevitable.

But it is also about thievery. Thievery is not a laughing matter. No one mocks cable companies when they go after people who used to climb telephone poles and wire themselves "free" cable. Suggesting the answer is for traditional content and distribution folk to "charge less, so that folks won't be tempted to steal," as one friend recently said to me is, well, a peculiar business argument that one might call blackmail.

Personally - and I cannot document it - I think most people don't want to be thieves, but at the same time they also don't want to be told what to do, think about, or enjoy. For traditional media and distribution channels to embrace the power of the individual, it will take some significant rethinking about how they do business, how they will make services available when the individual is the aggregator, what their cost structures and perks are, and what life is like in an anti-monopolist world. In a word, it will take innovation, and innovation across the board - from product and services to business models to mind-sets.

The Tucker reaction - to bomb individuals, technologies, and upstarts with legal, regulatory, and other coercive measures - may win on points for the short run, and may even be appropriate when people act like thieves. But it is no substitute for giving the individual what they want when and how they want it.

The good news for traditional media folks who are both paying attention and have some sense of history, is that with almost every media-related technological innovation - from the piano role to the radio to the television to the VCR and now a host of digital technologies - industry nay sayers said it was the death of all that was good and lined up in droves with their Tucker Reactions to kill, restrict, or inhibit change. But one day the smart ones realized that the change was a huge benefit that brought on significant market expansion.

A friend sent me this marvelous quote from Congressional testimony, which I offer you at length:

"There is going to be an ...avalanche... more than an avalanche. It is here.... [The new technology] is stripping those things clean, those markets clean off our profit potential - you are going to have devastation in this marketplace. We are going to bleed... unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus balance of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine.... [The lobbyist for the other side], and he certainly is not [on our side] that is for sure - he said that the [new technology] is the greatest friend that the American film producer has ever had. I say to you that the [new technology] is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

Guess where this quote came from and when. A hearing on TiVo with a plea from the filmmakers? Testimony on file sharing with representatives from the studios? All last year?

Try Jack Valenti before the House Judiciary Committee in 1982. The "new technology" was the VCR.

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