Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from What Makes Business Rock by Bill Roedy. Copyright (c) 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
Born in the U.S.A.
Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.
--John Lack, August 1, 1981
Television was the miracle of my childhood. The reality ofmoving images being sent through the air into your home wasbrand-new when I was growing up in Miami, and for me our12v black-and-white TV set was my escape capsule. My family wasstruggling; my father was long gone and money was a problem. I canremember being in a grocery store and wondering if we could afford a17-cent jar of mustard or a loaf of bread for 22 cents. But every night at7 o'clock, my grandmother, my great-aunt, my mother, my sister, and Iwould gather in front of our set and be transported to places wherepeople were happy and having adventures and living exciting lives.Those people on television didn't struggle to pay the mortgage, orscream at each other, or have to meet an endless series of potentialstepfathers. Television was our only respite, and one of the few times Iremember hearing laughter in our home.
At 10 o'clock, much too late, my mother and I would sit togetherand do my homework--with the TV on in the background. The TVwas always on; it brought the whole world into my life. Even as a child Irealized that television was magical. As I got older, to please my mother,each week I would memorize the entire TV Guide, and my motherwould proudly have me recite the primetime schedule for her friends.Maybe other kids could recite the preamble to the Constitution of theUnited States, but I could tell you what time and on what channel HaveGun--Will Travel was on.
I loved television. I loved everything about it, and my dream was towork in that industry one day. Even at that age I understood the powerof television. It was the ultimate shared experience. Everyone I knewwatched TV, and most of us watched the same programs. In school,whatever show was on the night before was almost always a subject ofconversation. I listened to the way the people I knew talked abouttelevision and I saw how it affected their thinking. It made an impact onme. Television was important to everyone I knew. I figured that if I waswatching, so was everyone else--and television could be my way toconnect with those people. If I could work in television, I believed,I would have the ability to influence huge numbers of people. AndI might even get to meet the star of Have Gun--Will Travel, RichardBoone!
It did not occur to me that working in television would allow me towatch as communications history was made. I was there at the beginningof the cable-TV industry, the digital television industry, and themiracle of TV everywhere. I watched as television was transformedfrom my small black-and-white picture to a 60v 3-D television or a4v screen on my mobile device with extraordinary clarity. In so manyways television has shaped and changed all of our lives, but in my ownlife, it has made all the difference.
And I certainly never dreamed that one day I would be the personresponsible for bringing Beavis and Butt-Head to Russia, or Pimp MyVespa to Italy. Or that I would support dressing the animated children'scharacter Dora the Explorer in a burka. Or that I would drink moutaiwith its 53-percent alcohol content with Mongolian cable operators,negotiate contracts with the mayor of Leningrad, rap with rappers inSaudi Arabia, sing "I want my MTV" with 3,000 Pakistanis in Karachi,and visit Mecca to get permission to launch MTV Arabia. Or thattelevision would allow me to be in Berlin when the Wall came down orin Russia at the birth of capitalism. Or that I would have the privilegeand the resources to save many lives by educating young people aroundthe world about the dangers of--and the truth about--AIDS. Or that Iwould be cited in gossip columns as being engaged to Naomi Campbell,the best-known supermodel in the world. I certainly never dreamed Iwould find myself dressed as a police officer in a Japanese karaoke bar at5 A.M. and singing a duet with U2's Bono--who was dressed as a nurse.But more than anything else, I never expected that together with anextraordinarily young and diverse organization we would build thelargest and most successful media network in the world.
With all the attention television gets, with all the glamour surroundingtelevision and the stars it creates, and the immense pleasure itbrings to billions of people in every country in the world, the mostimportant thing to remember about the television business is that it is abusiness and it has to be run as a business. Like any other business,the bottom line is still the bottom line. The problems that I facedin building MTV Networks International were in many ways similar tothe problems any business trying to expand throughout the world willencounter and has to overcome. The lessons that I learned can beapplied to almost any effort to expand any company into the internationalmarket. My business just happens to be more visible than most.
There was a time when an executive at an American company couldbasically ignore the rest of the world. Many people spent their entirecareer at one company focusing only on the domestic market. More andmore that has become a rarity. It's now estimated that the average personwill have at least 10 different jobs in his or her lifetime. To become asuccessful manager in an increasingly global business community it'sabsolutely imperative that an executive understand the way the rest ofthe world does business. More than ever, as the economic growth shiftsfrom America and Europe to China, India, and the emerging nations,having an international perspective is an absolute necessity.
When I joined MTV Europe in 1989 it was a startup operation. Atleast once, they had to use a car battery to provide the power to keep thechannel on the air. Just before I arrived in London a ferocious windstormhad knocked out all the power in our building, preventing us fromtransmitting. Much of London had lost power; even the BBC was off theair. Then our security guard, affectionately known as "The AmazingTony," had a great idea. He drove his Ford Cortina up to the frontwindow, got a long extension cord, and used alligator clips to attach it tohis car battery. We managed to get back on the air before the BBC. Butin the more than two decades I spent there, MTV Networks Internationalgrew from a single channel broadcasting to a few hundredthousand European households, mostly in Holland and Greece, into agiant media network operating 175 locally programmed cable, satellite,and terrestrial television channels and about 400 digital media propertiesstretching across 163 countries with a potential audience of more thantwo billion people.
But let me backtrack. I began working in the industry at HBO in1979, when television consisted almost exclusively of the three nationalnetworks as well as several local channels in each city transmittedthrough the terrestrial signal, frequencies that were picked up by arooftop antenna. Cable television was in its infancy. For the most part itconsisted largely of mom-and-pop operations strung out across thenation. No one possibly could imagine that it would eventually overwhelmthe networks and become a $140-billion-a-year industry. In factat that time there was considerable doubt it would survive. The businessmodel made little sense: Television was free and it had always been free,so why would anyone pay for it? In those early days the most excitingtechnological advances were color television and the remote control,which allowed viewers to change channels without getting up, thereforecreating the couch potato.
The television business was pretty straightforward in those days. Thethree major networks essentially had a monopoly and advertisers hadlimited options if they wanted to reach a mass audience. That wasn'ttrue only in television; at that time most industries offered consumersonly limited choices, from the products manufactured by the Big Threeautomakers and a few foreign manufacturers to the three popular flavorsof ice cream. America was the largest market in the world, and anindustry could remain very profitable without offering multiple choicesand certainly without expanding beyond our borders.
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