A funny thing happened to Chris Dodd on his way to not being a lobbyist. Despite his original protestations, the former Senator has become not only a spokesman but also something of a self-described evangelist for the film—make that content—industry.
Dodd, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, last year found himself the commanding general in a civil war of sorts between northern and southern California—Silicon Valley vs. Dodd's Hollywood/Los Angeles concerns, respectively—over online content piracy, an issue that has grown in importance with the move of video content online.
That battle didn't go so well—Dodd suggests it was a 'tsunami' that moved below the radar—but the MPAA regrouped, changed tactics and moved its focus to consumers and finding areas of cooperation with ad brokers and websites.
Dodd still bristles at the tactics of some on the other side of the debate, but he says the focus should now be on consumers and new delivery systems, not old conflicts.
In an exclusive interview with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton, Dodd talks about advocating for the industry, media violence, Aereo and more, though he never strays too far from the issue of online content and how to serve and protect it. An edited transcript follows.
How should the industry deal with online piracy?
I learned through nine elections that you never stand up and say, "This election is about me." That was a pretty good formula for a short public career [Dodd served more than three decades in Congress].
I don't want to dwell on SOPA and PIPA [the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act-antipiracy legislation scuttled by a big Web pushback led by Google]. In those days, I wasn't allowed to talk to people I had spent 30 years of my life with. But it seemed to me that the other side, cleverly, made the debate about us, about our profitability, our product. The debate was over at that point. Because the debate is not about us, it's about the consumer.
I think that what we have been trying to do is say, "This is about you as a consumer." Yes, it is about our product; it's about our artists, our creators and the 99% who work behind the camera whose jobs depend upon this, the 2.1 million people who got up this morning whose jobs depended on !lm and television and the $15-billion-plus in tax revenue we generate each year in this country. But it is also about you as a consumer. You deserve a great product. You like this product. You tell us that every day. When we put out a good story, well told, you show up.
We need to frame the debate more about the positive things we do and why piracy really hurts [consumers], in addition to whatever damage it does to our industry, to independent filmmakers maybe more so than even the studios, as rough as it is on them. The great director Taylor Hackford makes a strong point about the ability to attract private equity to independent films.
So we need to engage. And I think we are engaging, in a positive message about why intellectual property, copyright and piracy are matters that are not just the concern of the industry that produces them but the audience that depends on them.
From the outside, the SOPA/PIPA debate looked like a civil war between Northern and Southern California. Your rhetoric got pretty heated, and the other side was taking aim as well. Could you have anticipated the Web pushback or handled it differently?
Having been around [Congress] for 36 years, I never saw anything quite like it. In a period of seven or eight days you have the unprecedented action where 7 or 8 million e-mails showed up on the computers of members of Congress, 13 million at the White House. And I don't recall [that passionate a response] on any issue, including a Mother's Day resolution, where 50% of the U.S. Senate were cosponsors of a bill. There is a difference between saying you are going to vote for it and putting your name on it. And within a matter of hours, you were hard-pressed to find a single name left on that list. This was a tsunami. [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings said to me it was almost like a swarm of bees. We've never seen anything like it before.
In the past, on the issue of copyright and intellectual property, musicians, artists, publishers and writers would talk and there were some committee members and staffers who understood the issue. And obviously there were a few regulatory bodies that were involved in the issue. But the issue of copyright and intellectual property didn't have any popular audience.
I'll give you an example from years ago. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were not endowments at all. [They were] appropriated money. So I thought, "Why don't we create a true endowment? Why don't we say that at the end of the copyright period, whatever you decide it would be, there would be a period of say 20-25 years, in which the revenue from otherwise copyrighted material would go into a true endowment? One generation of artists supporting the next." I got about four votes for the idea. There was no audience at the time for that kind of discussion.
You suggested in a National Press Club speech last October that comprehensive anti-piracy legislation is no longer needed. Is targeted legislation needed? If not, what is the best approach?
It seems to me that what really needs to happen is what is happening.
Going back to your first question, which is a very good one, I hope that we are demonstrating a changed approach on this. And that is, let's ask our consumers, as we have been doing in surveys here, in Europe and elsewhere, to share with us their views and their thoughts on how they view this issue. And with 375 online distribution services now available online, the argument that "I have to do this because there is no other legal way I can get you this" is becoming less credible.
But we are also talking to ad brokers, we're talking to payment processors, we're talking to Internet host sites, all of whom say they don't really want to be involved in lending their names and their credibility to illegal sites.
It's a lot more complicated to deal with ad brokers than I thought. I didn't realize the distance between a company that wants to advertise its product and its broker and where ads get placed. It's not an easy trail to follow. We are getting a lot of positive response, and a lot of good memorandums of understanding are emerging to limited success with the payment processers and Internet host sites as well.
Actually, this has not been successful, regretfully, but I'm going to work on the assumption that they want it to; otherwise they wouldn't have proposed it.
For instance, Google is willing to change its algorithms so that when you and I search for movies, the page that pops up doesn't have five sites on it that are illegal; rather, it will elevate legal ones, and maybe even put a Good Housekeeping seal of approval or some identifier for the consumer because it is awfully hard to detect a legal from an illegal site.
Our copyright alert system is in place and it is showing some success. There is no punitive reaction to it. It is really letting people know that you have downloaded an illegal site. I think that is going to have some positive effects.
You are talking about the "six strikes" program?
Do you favor expanding that beyond illegal peer to- peer file sharing to other forms of piracy?
I think we just want to leave it peer-to-peer at this point. We just started it in February. We did it with ISPs and tech companies and it took a long time to get an agreement to go forward. But our surveys are discovering that with the availability of legal sites at a price point that is affordable, an awful lot of people will go in that direction.
I looked at something the other day. It's not available yet, but it's the kind of thing we're all working on. It's where, if you and I went to an illegal site unintentionally, a pop-up appears and says: "This site is illegal. If you'd like to see Lincoln, you have four different sites you can go to to watch the film at this same price point."
The assumption is that when that pops up and you show an alternative where you can get the same film -- and a better copy of it by the way, and a legal copy of it, at an affordable price point -- you will take that simple step to do it. We haven't done that yet, but I like that idea.
Again, this is respecting the consumer, respecting that most people given good options at affordable prices will make good decisions.
Does it wipe [piracy] out? No. But a lot of it is business-to- business, a lot of it is chatter going back and forth. The tech community is not monolithic and they are changing. Google has YouTube, and now YouTube wants to charge for content. And [there's] Amazon. All of a sudden, you have something you want to protect and you begin to get a different attitude and you start talking about the subject matter.
The idea was offensive to me that a responsible company was allowing the argument to be made that we were against freedom of speech and we were breaking the Internet. It was just baloney and they knew it. As H.L. Menken used to say, "When they tell you it's not about the money, it's about the money."
Who is "they?"
Any one of them who at the time [of the SOPA/PIPA debate] would say, "These guys want to break the Internet and are against freedom of speech." They knew these were phony, foolish arguments and it was not an honest debate about what the effort was, which was to shut down foreign sites that were stealing product.
The bills may not have been drafted as well as they should have been, and we should have done a better job of anticipating an argument, but it didn't make their arguments any more meritorious.
You once said you didn't want to be a lobbyist. Why did you take the MPAA job?
I'm an advocate for this industry and becoming a bit of an evangelist.
The more I've learned, the more I respect [this industry]. I say this respectfully, but for years there were only three networks, and the only way to see a movie was to go to your local theater or come to the MPAA, unless you knew someone in Hollywood with a home screen. No Internet, no cable, none of the new technologies that have emerged. So I suppose they probably didn't feel as though they had that many issues they had to address. And there was very little discussion about the business of Hollywood. All of the news you read about Hollywood was the glamour side of it, the Oscar night, the movie magazines. So I am "Exhibit A." A little more than two years ago, if you had asked me to have a conversation with you about this [industry], it would have been a very brief one.
Even though I raised money out there [in Hollywood] as a candidate through a number of elections.
Also [there's] the long list of films like Gentleman's Agreement or Philadelphia that have done far more than entertain but change people's attitudes in this country and elsewhere. I think that is underappreciated in many ways and I feel a passion about legislators, regulators, policymakers, opinion-makers to understand that, with all its shortcomings and flaws, this is a very important American industry, and it deserves a better understanding of how much good it does on a variety of levels. And to that extent, I have become a bit of an evangelist.
So, did Hollywood have you at hello?
No, the first few offers they made I said I think you have the wrong guy. But I got some good advice: If you are going to do something different, do something very different, and this is very different. I am enjoying the work and the people I work with. They're bright. They care. They love the product and they want to do a better job.
Do you at all feel the shadow of Jack Valenti, who held this job for 38 years?
I knew him so well. He was great friends with my parents [Dodd's father was also a senator] and a great friend to me. I used to drive him nuts. I had fundraisers in California and I didn't go through Jack because I had a lot of people I knew. But he was a great advocate and a wonderful person. But no, I don't feel any of that. I would like to think he would think I was doing a good job.
TV screens are 100 inches, offering HD and earlier VOD windows. What is that doing to the theatrical distribution model?
Not much. First of all, this is a studio-by-studio issue. There is not an industry approach on this. It all begins with the supposition that the best place to see their films is in a theatrical setting, with surround sound, a big screen, almost a communal environment. That is still the best place. Now, again, we want people to have access to their product when they want it, where they want it, how they want it. And the new platforms are emerging by the hour to give people those opportunities. I mentioned the distribution services that now exist globally. Again, we have come up with a website (wheretowatch.com) that lets you find where to see our product legally. So, instead of having a site that says: "Bad boy, bad girl for watching something illegally," let's respect the consumer, let's give them a site they can go to. And, by the way, it has become a very popular site. As you know, there have been various examples in distribution on how to do this better, and there will always be testing and trials along the way. But we still begin on the supposition of that theatrical setting
So you see over-the-top as a value added?
Absolutely. More people still go to a movie, globally, than go to any other live audience event combined. Now, in terms of the number of people in the audience, it doesn't beat watching television at home, but all the other events you can think of where an audience shows up, movies are still the dominant form of entertainment, and at an average price point of $7.92
You mentioned various distribution examples. Where are you on Aereo?
This is not directly in my wheelhouse in a sense. But, obviously, I support the views of my member studios and other copyright owners that services should not be able to retransmit content over the Internet without permission from copyright holders.
The basic proposition is still a valid one. I mean, you can't have a value system offline and a different value system online. It just defies logic. That's not to say you can't accommodate new technologies for content. There is still a lot of litigation going on, obviously. But at the end of the day I hope the courts will uphold the principle that those who invest millions of dollars in making movies and TV shows deserve to be compensated for their hard work.
Let's talk about violence for a minute. Do you think momentum in Congress for action is dissipating, and is that a good or a bad thing?
On a personal note, almost 50 years ago, my father offered the first gun control legislation in the U.S. Congress, certainly since the 1920's or â€˜30s. Connecticut was the largest gun-producing state in those days, by the way. It took him eight years and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to get a bill passed in the fall of 1968. I did not pay as much attention as my father did, but was deeply involved as a member in voting for and supporting legislation.
After [the shooting in Newtown Ct.], this is more than an abstraction. I happened to have been in that town the night before Dec. 14. I care deeply about it.
But on the [media violence] issue, you can go back to [Greek playwright] Euripides. He was run out of town in 300 BC or 400 BC because he wrote a play people thought was influencing the behavior of youngsters in his town. Three things to keep in mind, and that is, first, that choice is important. Our industry produces a product that offers great choice to consumers. Second, I believe very strongly that we ought to give parents the tools and the controls that they need to make decisions about what they want to see, but more importantly what they want their children to see. And third, that we give them the education necessary to make those good decisions.
Those are the three legs on which we stand. And our rating system now is 50 years old. It is evolving, never permanent in the sense that you would not be mindful of what the community standard is, and in a country this diverse, deciding what the community standard is is damn hard, to put it mildly.
But it is interesting that the public gives us very high marks in the surveys we do. I'm not going to say it's perfect. And recently in the wake of what happened at Newtown, sitting down ourselves and saying, How can we do a better job on this, we came up with something called "check the box," which will enlarge the rating symbols and the descriptors in much clearer language so the people know what is going on. We changed the website so that people can actually go and learn. If your child wants to go see something, you can actually be able to determine what they are going to walk into and see.
Do you expect the bills asking to conduct studies about violent media will make it through Congress?
People have been studying this stuff forever and we don't mind if people want to look and study things. I don't see any harm in all of that. But I think we all ought to be very, very cautious and careful about all of a sudden legislating content. If you get into that it's a slippery slope you will regret deeply in my view.
Why did MPAA push back on changes to the Federal Trade Commission's Children's Online Privacy Protection Act?
I don't think it was so much pushing it back as it was the implementation. [MPAA asked that the changes take effect at the end of the year, rather than the current July 1 date].
The rules have been established here, and again, I spent most of my public career on children's issues and an awful lot of legislation involving kids [Dodd cofounded the Congressional Children's Caucus and was principal author of the Family and Medical Leave Act]. So I care a lot about it and the industry does as well, particularly companies like Disney and others. I pay a lot of attention since so much of their product is geared to children. And the rule is around and we continue to work closely with the FCC on COPPA. The logistics of implementing the new procedures can prove challenging and so we are very much engaged on the implementation phase. But our general proposition is that we support what they are trying to do. We accept the rules that have been adopted and we just want to make sure that the implementation works well.
What should happen with the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), which Congress must either renew or sunset at the end of next year?
We're now dealing with satellite, so the world is different from the days of just purely cable and where retransmission was hard in certain areas. So, our basic proposition is we ought to be able to negotiate the best possible price for the hard-working people who produce the product. That is why we believe that the cable and satellite compulsory licenses are a historical anachronism in many ways and we're in a different world today with satellite transmissions. We ought to be able to reflect that as much as we can. And if they are going to be retained, we think their scope shouldn't be broadened. Program owners and the people involved should be duly compensated and that is a negotiable outcome rather than one that is predetermined with compulsory license. So, we are looking for some modification of this reflecting the times in which we live.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.