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Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman: 'We better be the ones to cannibalize ourselves'

ecosystem bob pittman

Bob Pittman’s parents always found it strange when he would crank up the volume on his AM radio to listen along to his favorite shows while doing his homework. "Some people have always been multi-taskers," says Pittman, with a smile, during an interview last week. "People talk about how we’re always checking our smartphones or tablets these days while we watch TV, but really, human behavior hasn’t changed. It’s just new gadgets giving it a different expression."

Pittman’s passion for radio paid off with a gig as an announcer when he was just 15. He transitioned into programming, taking control of the flagship WNBC in New York when he was 23 years old. From there he moved to television, eventually earning a spot in the history books as one of the creators of MTV. He joined AOL in 1996 and stayed through the glory days of the Time Warner merger. In his current role as the CEO of Clear Channel, Pittman has returned to his first love. He’s overseeing a vast radio empire, helping hundreds of local stations around the nation to succeed in an era of web streams and mobile apps.

We got a chance to chat with Pittman about his thoughts on radio, televison and where he thinks the media landscape is headed.

It seems like a lot of major players, from Apple to Microsoft to Google, are trying to build these big ecosystems that will meet consumers' every entertainment need. What do you make of that trend?

"History is littered with companies that tried to do the controlled ecosystem."

History is littered with companies that tried to do the controlled ecosystem, to own every part of the puzzle. iTunes didn't last long on Apple only before it went ot the PC as well. What drives the consumer is, ‘who has the shows I like?’ They are quite willing to mix and match. In my house we sit down to watch a movie, we go through a DVD, streaming Netflix, we have an Xbox that we get stuff over, we have the Apple TV, we have pay-per-view on the cable and we pick one of them. The smart players are platform agnostic.

Do you think the rise of smartphones and tablets will have a big impact on the way we watch TV?

A lot of people say ‘oh my God, now we've got these multiple screens,’ but that's not really different from how people have always been. I used to sit down in front of the TV with a magazine in my lap. Today it’s an iPad. I used to blurt out comments to everyone in the house, now I blurt it out on Twitter. When I look at these products, I think that human behavior doesn't change all that much, technology to express that human behavior is what's changing.

Do you think the TV landscape is ready for a big shift, like it was during the early days of cable, when you launched MTV?

When I started, cable was a way to get the TV signal to rural areas that couldn’t get a clear picture any other way. It was just starting to come to the big cities, where people already got TV, and so there it made sense to do these cable-only networks focused on something, like music or sports. The cable companies went to the big broadcasters and asked them to create these new channels, and of course, the major networks said no. They didn’t want to cannibalize their existing business by building out new channels.

My feeling about Clear Channel has been, if the landscape is changing, we better be the ones to cannibalize ourselves. That’s why iHeartRadio is on phones, tablets and the web. For radio, we're used to the idea that it doesn’t matter if it’s AM, FM, satellite, internet, mobile — we don't care. The smartest players in the TV space will do the same thing.

It seems like some companies are really in a bind. HBO would love to make their programming available anywhere a la carte, but can’t because they don’t want to jeopardize their lucrative relationship with the cable companies.

"I don't give a shit how the TV signal gets to me."

People get too attached to the technology, to how they get the songs and shows they love. You know what the original name of MTV was? Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, because back in the late 70's everybody was enamored with the idea of satellites. But pretty quickly the cool new gizmo changes. I don't give a shit how the TV signal gets to me, it just gets to me. We’re still so fascinated with the smartphone or the iPad. Well I thought it was great when I first got an 8-track player under the front seat of my car. But a few years later, it was gone. And I didn’t care because all I really wanted was to hear Santana while I was driving.

So you’re saying in the end, it's the content that will win, not the distributor. The message, not the medium?

Always does. I started in the business when I was 15, so I've been in the game 45 years, and you see this pattern time and again. The cable operators are making things too complex. They're now forcing me to go to a guide and find a show. I don't want to watch a show, I want to browse and pick up little bits of it. I think what's happening is that the cable operators are destroying their business by doing that.

By trying to be more like Web TV boxes or apps?

Because when people are just watching the show they want, then I don't need 500 channels of cable anymore. When I can click through through 200 channels in 2 minutes, that’s a big advantage. People like to go the mall, they like to browse. You pick up the remote control, you go click, click, click, and the channels change that fast, it's almost like playing Angry Birds.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Tuesday:
Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve

The Verge
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