Focus: The man with his finger on Sony's pulse

  • @dusborne
COULD IT be that Howard Stringer is hankering for a job in television again? It has been four years since the tall Welshman bid a teary farewell to CBS, the US network that he headed between 1988 and 1995 and which gave him his first job back in 1965. Last week, giving the keynote address to the annual National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas, he admitted to pangs of nostalgia. "When I call CBS executives today, I have to spell my name to the receptionist," he lamented with a wry smile.

Let's consider this for a moment. How might we help Mr Stringer find his way back into an industry he is quite obviously missing? Which large broadcasting entity, not necessarily US-based but English-speaking, might be in the market for a new Number One, someone to steer it into the brave new digital age of the 21st Century? How about Director-General as his title rather than president or CEO. Gosh, that's it - our very own Auntie, the BBC. He is from Cardiff, after all, notwithstanding his US citizenship, acquired in 1985. The guy could hardly be a more perfect fit.

Actually, we are a little behind the curve here. For several months, Mr Stringer has been the focus of gossip about a successor to Sir John Birt, who departs the Beeb in April next year. The mention of his name has provoked reactions ranging from "Yes, please" to "Howard who?". There have been some in the Corporation who have been panicked by the notion of Mr Stringer as Director General, but probably that's because they have been confusing him with another British-born star from the US television universe named Jerry Springer, a man whose meanderings through the sexual low life of the US of A would certainly give a whole new meaning to the notion of public service broadcasting.

Mr Stringer could hardly be more different. He has long qualified for membership of the Brits-that-made-it-big-in-New York club we so love to natter about. Somehow, though, our fascination has been directed more often at other paid-up members like Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker, and her husband and long-ago Sunday Times and Times editor, Harold Evans. And yet Mr Stringer, in terms of sheer corporate ladder-climbing, is a far bigger cheese than any of them.

We are not just talking about his past success at CBS. From a South Wales background so cash-strapped that his RAF father could not afford a blazer for him when he won a scholarship to a posh private school, Mr Stringer is now ensconced atop the massive Sony building on New York's Madison Avenue. Indeed, since December, he has been chairman and CEO of Sony Corporation of America, making him number three in the global Sony empire. Understand that and ponder the pivotal role that Sony expects to play worldwide in turning all of our lives over from analogue to digital, and you might begin to wonder whether all this BBC talk isn't a little bit silly.

But we had to ask, and this was the response from Sony's New York PR. "Mr Stringer not long ago received a significant promotion at Sony Corporation of America. At the end of June, he will be named to the board of Sony Corporation. He knows nothing about the rumours regarding the BBC and has no comment". There didn't seem much point in asking for details about his salary; suffice it to say Sony will be paying 57-year-old Stringer rather more than the tax-payer-funded BBC would ever be able to manage.

Nor do we have any evidence, aside from the recent purchase of a modest pile in Oxfordshire, that Mr Stringer is ready to end his love affair with America, the seeds of which were sown during his student days at Merton College at Oxford University. There he mixed with Americans over in Britain on the Rhodes Scholarship programme and began dreaming of a life in the US. In 1965, he sailed to New York with pounds 100 in his pocket. Job interviews eventually took him to CBS where was given the lowly position of log clerk. Then, just six weeks later, at the height of the Vietnam War, he was drafted.

One of the more endearing stories about Stringer has him writing to Bobby Kennedy to grumble about his unexpected fate. He recently recalled saying in the letter, "Look, I've been here for four months and you want me to die for you? Don't you think that's a little premature?". But the US law said it was quite proper for resident aliens to be conscripted and so Stringer was dispatched and ended up serving 10 months.

At the very end of his official Sony-issued CV it says: "He is a recipient of a US Army Commendation Medal for meritorious achievement for service in Vietnam (1965-67)." Other handy details: he is married to a dermatologist, Dr Jennifer A K Patterson, and has two children. The family lives in New York but also has a bolt-hole in the Hamptons on Long Island named Bear Cottage. This has nothing to do with Stringer's rugby-playing physique (he was captain of the Oxford team) but with his wife's collection of stuffed bears.

Returning from combat, Stringer once more found himself at CBS, where he relentlessly scaled the ranks. Eventually he was to take charge of the Evening News with Dan Rather, helping it to regain viewer dominance over the news shows at ABC and NBC, as well as the network's current affairs division. Under his leadership, the documentary team won a slew of Emmy Awards. It was the then new owner of CBS, the industrialist, Laurence Tisch, who chose Mr Stringer as President of CBS Broadcasting in 1988.

At first, CBS fared brilliantly under Mr Stringer. Despite being forced by Mr Tisch into draconian job cuts, staff remained loyal; his success in taking the company from number three in the prime-time ratings back to number one commanded respect. His greatest moment came in 1993, when he poached late-night talk-show comic David Letterman from NBC. How he did it became the stuff of legend in the industry. One of his moves involved then CBS news broadcaster, Connie Chung, whom Letterman had jokingly fantasised about on air. Mr Stringer persuaded Ms Chung to tape a pretend segment promising Letterman, in her most languid voice, that she would moan, "Oh, Dave! Oh ... Dave!", whenever she made love to her husband on condition he joined CBS. Mr Stringer sent the tape to Letterman.

For Mr Stringer, it was the pinnacle of his career at CBS. In 1994 things started to unravel. Ratings slid dramatically and the network suffered a huge setback when it lost the rights to broadcast National League Football games to a much bigger bid from Fox Broadcasting, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Depressed and fed up, Mr Stringer quit in early 1995.

When he invited some of his closest colleagues to a farewell reception, Mr Stringer's normal gift for words reportedly abandoned him. After his speech, he sat down and wept.

Mr Stringer had been lured away by Michael Ovitz, an old friend and head of the Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles. What followed was a project called Tele-TV. Bankrolled by three telephone companies, Nynex, Bell Atlantic and PacTel, it was an ultimately ill-fated attempt to use telephone lines to deliver television and Internet services to American homes. Mr Stringer once joked that he had given up CBS to be made "chief executive of a phone booth". Within two years, it was clear that Tele-TV was doomed. But it had not been time entirely wasted. Mr Stringer, who while at CBS had famously poo-pooed interactivity and all things information super- highway - "I don't think we've found the entrance ramp yet", he once proudly proclaimed - had undergone an awakening at Tele-TV that prepared him well for life at Sony, which scooped him up in April 1997.

Its essence was this: that digital technology and the power of the computer chip were about to revolutionise our relationship with just about everything electronic in our homes - our computers, our televisions, our VCRs. Machines that once had separate functions, like PCs and TVs, were about to be fused. And the prize for those companies that saw it would be huge.

Sony, which makes 30 per cent of its sales in the US, has seen it for sure. In spite of Japan's economic turmoil, the company is in robust shape and is undergoing its own revolution. Helping to fund its success is the PlayStation, which accounts for just a over a quarter of its revenues. Last month, Sony celebrated the sale of its 50 millionth PlayStation console and unveiled its successor PlayStation II. Under its Tokyo-based President, Nobuyuki Idei - the man Mr Stringer reports to - Sony is gearing up to take its slice of the digital market.

Part of the change involves turning Sony into a company that is as much committed to software as it is to hardware. Indeed by the end of next year, it will have as many software engineers as hardware designers. But there is more to it than this. It is anticipated that the new approach will eventually pit the corporation - and Mr Stringer - against Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates. "All of us," Mr Stringer remarked recently, "are in a battle with Bill Gates for the living room".

Just heating up is a gigantic struggle between two competing visions. In one corner is Mr Gates, who is betting that at the heart of every newly- digitised home will be a PC, equipped with a Windows-based operating system. Sony, with some other allies in the electronics industry, sees a world of smart gadgets, each with their own brains. On your TV will be a Sony set-top box, able to control the TV itself - digital and equipped to raid the Internet - your video recorder, hi-fi system and even your computerised pet. The new PlayStation would also join the circus, working, for instance, as a DTV player or indeed as the set-top box itself. Also in Sony's future, is a new operating system to be called Aperios. To be unveiled later this year, it will control digital TVs, cellular phones, or any other gadget Sony dreams up. It will be Aperios versus Windows, Stringer versus Gates.

When Mr Stringer stood before the delegates at the broadcasting convention last week, it was not to share old times with them. Rather, he lectured them on the need to embrace the digital revolution. Directing his comments specifically at the networks, he declared: "Digital TV is inevitable ... Digital TV will change the world. At Sony, we view the DTV as the command centre for a digital home network. We help you figure out lots of marvellous ways to make your business work better. And all we ask in return is that you stop crying in your chardonnay about lost share".

We have yet to hear Mr Stringer, rather than his PR lackies, ruling himself out from the Birt succession. But who are we kidding? Mr Stringer has done TV. Which would you find more interesting - the annual politicking over the licence fee, or taking on Bill Gates for control of our homes?