Murdoch's biggest fan

PROFILE: MITCHELL BERMAN

When Mitchell Berman, the American television executive, met Sam Chisholm, the former BSkyB chief executive, in Los Angeles in 1992, he was already a Murdoch fan. "I talked to Chisholm about going to work for Sky," he says. "But I decided to stay in LA."

Five years on, joining a Mountain View, California-based hi-tech firm called Open TV, Berman's appreciation for Murdoch deepened. Open TV had a contract with BSkyB to develop the software for the satellite broadcaster's digital television set-top devices.

Bearded, zany, southern Californian to the bone, Berman today waxes even more enthusiastic about Murdoch. But to understand why, you must first listen to him rant about Bill Gates.

"All the news in the British press seems to be about Micro-soft these days," he says. "Micro-soft and its move into cable television. Well, let me tell you about Microsoft and television. Two years ago Microsoft started Web TV. Web TV has been a disaster. Gates has spent $425m [pounds 264m] to get 770,000 subscribers. So now Microsoft has decided to buy its way into television. It wants to suck the blood out of the industry. Microsoft is Dracula."

Berman is not pure sound-bite. There's an analysis about the way the technologies underpinning the television, computer and telecommunications industries are converging, too. "The convergent technologies story has become horribly distorted," he says. "Everyone is focused on the internet. Everyone is focused on how Micro-soft, Intel, AT&T and BT are going to take over television. Silicon Valley has a big stake in pumping up this story. So does Wall Street - all that money invested in anything with dot com in it. But television is not about the internet. It's about entertainment. That's what Murdoch is good at."

But isn't he and the television world a fading force compared with computer and telecoms companies?

"Television, not the PC, is the killer ap," Berman insists. "Where's Microsoft with television? It's years away from doing much. Where are the phone companies? They don't care about video. They're using video as a Trojan Horse to sell what they do care about - voice and data. Where's BSkyB? It's up and running."

Self-interested though Ber-man's spiel may be, there is little doubt that the explosion of investor and media interest in the net has biased the convergent technologies story toward the computer and telecoms industries.

Berman is a television marketing man. He cannot stop the patter. But he cannot stop being iconoclastic, either. "Television is boring now," he says. "That's why fewer people are watching it and fewer people are talking about it."

But he thinks this is a lull for his industry, not the end. "Open TV and others are developing technologies to help television producers - the creative people, the content people - paint something entirely new on the screen," he says.

Born in West Los Angeles in 1954, Berman's grandfather was the foreman of the Warner's lot in the 1940s. He dreamed of becoming a screenwriter himself, but after watching Robert Kennedy's assassination on television in 1968, he dedicated his life to public service. Graduating from UCLA with a master's in public administration in 1977, he went to work for Jimmy Carter, then Teddy Kennedy.

Four years into the Reagan years, however, his wife told him his idealism would leave him crazy or dead, and he got a job as an account executive for Time Warner's Home Box Office pay-TV station. "One day I was working with pregnant teenage mothers. The next I was on the 42nd floor of Century Towers," he says. "It was an adjustment."

He then went to work for a pay-TV start-up in Auckland, New Zealand, called Sky TV (unrelated to BSkyB). Homesick, he and his family returned to LA in 1992 and he set up as a consultant for the cable industry. "This was when I thought, `Jeez, there's convergence happening here'," he says.

Berman specialised in data mining. Using something called GIS desktop software, which cross-tabulates census information, postal and telephone exchange information, and credit backgrounds, he helped cable clients target likely markets down to one side of a block. "You want Hispanics earning over a hundred thou in Houston? Boom, you got it. You want dentists on Wilshire Boulevard in the market for piped-in music, a hundred soothing tunes? Boom, yours, man."

Branching out, Berman noticed that a growing number of phone companies he had never heard of, including one selling something called high-speed internet access, were interested in his services. Then in 1995 he moved to Sydney to become strategic business development manager at East Coast Pay Television, Australia's first digital direct broadcast satellite subscription television service.

When he returned to the States in 1997, to take up the senior marketing post at Open TV, he says, "all the stuff about the internet was just getting going. I went to one industry event. Intel spent $2m to put together a presentation showing that the PC, not the TV, was the killer ap. There were images of Mom, Dad and the kids huddled around a computer. The television was in the trash."

The current, internet chapter of the convergent technologies story is only a phase, Berman predicts. "We used to talk about the proliferation of television channels reaching the home," he says. "Now we're talking about the proliferation of services - multi-channel TV, the internet, cheap telephony."

Nevertheless, Berman is not sanguine. His peripatetic career makes him acutely aware that while the excitement about the net may only be a phase, people, companies and entire industry sectors can get crushed in the meantime.

Open TV is the operable case in point. It could float or be bought out and make Berman's fortune. Alternatively, it could be driven out of business.

Formed in 1994 as a joint development and marketing alliance between Sun and Thomson Multimedia, Open TV shipped its first operating system for digital interactive television two years later. Since then Sun, the progenitor of Java software, competitor to Micro-soft's Windows, has remained a backer.

But a month after Berman's arrival in 1997 Thomson Multimedia - the consumer electronics unit of the French state-owned holding company Thomson SA - dropped out. In 1998 Alcatel, NEC and DirecTV each bought 7.5 per cent stakes in Thomson Media. So did a US computer heavy.

"Microsoft", Berman mutters darkly. In addition to taking strategic 29.9 per cent stakes in the UK cable television companies NTL and Telewest, and investing in the Dutch cable carrier UPC, Microsoft is working on the software for the set-top devices for Thomson TV in France.

Which brings Berman back to his position as president of the Murdoch fan club. Last month BSkyB announced it would give away the set-top box devices for BSkyB digital. Sitting at the Open TV booth at Mediacast, the digital television exhibition in Earls Court last week, he explained the give-away was not aimed at ONdigital, BSkyB's digital TV rival. The move was aimed at Microsoft. By getting his digital service up and running first, then attracting subscribers by giving away set-top boxes, Murdoch obtains pole position in the race to the digital age, Berman says.

Even after the race gets going in earnest, Murdoch has an ace in the hole. Microsoft, the rest of Silicon Valley and the telecoms companies are geared up to service the As and Bs in the global consumer market. With his feet firmly in the Hollywood entertainment industry, Murdoch is aiming for the masses.

"We want to help," Berman says. In the future, television will be as much about software as it is cameras.

"Open TV is David against the Microsoft Goliath working on this software."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Sales Assistant / Buyer

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers a range of ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisors are r...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'