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 (while still affordable) cars ever made. Threatened by his progress, the Big Three automakers, with some help from their friends in Washington, effectively squashed the product, making Tucker into a small footnote of automotive history.
There was a good deal of debate that the film oversimplified a complicated story. But whether there was a pro-active conspiracy to destroy Tucker, or Tucker destroyed himself, it's clear from the historical record that the auto industry's first response to competition was to stop it in its tracks. The industry's other response was to try to build a greatly imperfect Tucker-like model of its own. Ultimately, the security of working on what the industry already knew best trumped the costs associated with innovation.
I have thought a lot about the movie as the music industry arrests file-sharers and the cable industry lobbies Washington, that basic cable is better for consumers even if they don't want 80 percent of what they're forced to buy, and the movie industry fights to hold onto traditional distribution.
At one level, the owners of content and distribution have a fair concern. BitTorrent and the other file-sharing programs are about convenience, community, and the rule of the individual as content aggregator. This is all good, if not inevitable.
But file-sharing is also about thievery, which is not a laughing matter. No one mocks cable companies when they go after people who climb telephone poles and wire themselves "free" cable. Suggesting the answer is for traditional content and distribution companies to "charge less, so that people won't be tempted to steal," as one friend recently said to me, is, well, a peculiar argument that one might call blackmail.
Call me naïve, but I believe that most people don't want to be thieves. At the same time, they also don't want to be told what to do, think about, and enjoy. For traditional media and distribution channels to embrace the power of the individual will take significant rethinking about how companies do business and make services available as individuals become content aggregators. In a word, it will take innovation across the board, from products and services to business models and mind-sets.
The "Tucker reaction" of bombing individuals, technologies, and startups with legal and other coercive measures may score points in the short run, and may even be appropriate when people act like thieves. But it's no substitute for giving individuals what they want, when they want it.
There's good news for innovators in the traditional media world with some sense of history. Every media-related technological innovation - from the piano roll to the radio to the TV - has brought consumer benefits and significant market expansion. Progress occurred despite industry naysayers armed with their "Tucker reactions" to kill, restrict, or inhibit change.
Consider this Congressional testimony: "[The new technology] is stripping 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. ...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."
Who said this and when? Was it a hearing on TiVo with a plea from filmmakers? Testimony on file-sharing with representatives from the studios?
Guess again. Try Jack Valenti before the House Judiciary Committee in 1982. The "new technology?" The VCR.
Christopher Schroeder is CEO and president of ChoiceMedia, and formerly the CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. (firstname.lastname@example.org)