David Neuman knows where all the Digital Entertainment Network bodies are buried and last week he dug them up. In a rambling, humorous and thoughtful address at the Streaming Media East conference, he detailed the demise of the entertainment Web site.
Many executives of defunct Web companies would have ducked a speaking engagement at a major Web confab. But Neuman seemed to relish recounting what he called the "challenging, exhilarating, painful and ultimately worthwhile" experience of being president of DEN, comparing himself to Jacob Marley's ghost, "rattling his chains in warning."
Neuman opened with a scatter-shot of footnotes about the rise and fall of DEN, including the IPO that was filed then pulled, the venture capitalists who committed and backed out, the 12 reorganizations, the three missed payrolls, and raising $62 million in six months while burning $5 million a month.
"As they said in The Godfather II," he noted, "this is the business we chose."
Then Neuman launched into a litany entitled "10 Things I've Learned":
- The creative opportunity is bigger than ever. Neuman contended that DEN's programming had strong appeal to an avid audience that "liked it and wanted more," from its relatively tame extreme sports programming to truly extreme Frat Ratz. The former NBC programming exec compared the DEN collection to NBC's golden age of sitcoms such as Golden Girls and Night Court.
- The good-fast-cheap theory. Neuman showed a projection of a triangle with "good," "fast" and "cheap" inscribed, one word to a side, recounting how a friend had drawn it on a napkin over drinks one night, and told him, "Pick two." Neuman took the rap for ignoring the triangle principle in DEN's downturn: "I knew what the triangle said about fast and cheap, but I went ahead anyway. I got suckered into the Internet timetable , which induces a sense of mania."
- The next big hit is all about will. Neuman recalled former boss Barry Diller, who built the FOX Network by doggedly launching new series to replace the series that had just tanked, and repeating the cycle until something stuck: "You launch four series, and if those fail, you launch four more." This, Neuman opined, is the modus operandi for all fledgling networks, including FOX, WB, CNet and UPN.
- Expect the venture capitalists to play their role to the hilt. "The rappers have it right," Neuman said. "It's all about the Benjamins." A venture capitalist's sole concern is the potential for immediately multiplying money. "He's like a character in a great screenplay," Neuman said. "His motivation is always transparent."
- The Heisenberg principle: You can't observe something without inevitably changing it. Neuman cited journalistic impulses to categorize the DEN story through the three E's: entertainment, extravagance and enterprise. A sex scandal involving DEN's founder and a teenage boy was the entertainment. Continuing reports about high-salaried executives were the extravagance. The enterprising included tracking down a former secretary to ask if she'd ever observed him doing anything illegal. And one employee supposedly encountered a reporter on her doorstep one night, declaring, "I know what's going on over there!"
- Whatever I do next, I'll grab all the DEN talent I can. Neuman insisted that DEN drew an exceptionally talented group of fanatically dedicated employees who accepted 80% pay cuts, pulled all-nighters and are destined to distinguish themselves in other Web ventures.
- Watch the law of karma. "No kindness was ever forgotten or an irritant not retaliated," Neuman said. He asserted that his performance as a good boss inspired good work from those under him, and his periods of underperformance were immediately pointed out by observers. "Near the end, it was like a mob of people chasing Frankenstein," he said.
- It's the product, stupid. Then it's the marketing, stupid. "If DEN is ever studied in business school case studies," Neuman said, "the fact that no significant marketing ever took place will be a source of great fascination and disbelief."
- Never leave your flank exposed-or at least, as little as possible. Neuman cited the decision-hotly debated within the company-to leave the DEN Web site unchanged from March through May while the company reorganized and looked toward a fall relaunch.
- Never lose your soul. Here, Neuman waxed sloppily philosophical, saying, "At some level, our objective should be the self-actualization of everyone on the planet."
- Echoing Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, Neuman said, "I'm just looking for a nice peaceful town the next time around." Responding to a reporter's questions afterwards, he didn't say where that was, only that he still wanted to be a Webcaster after he takes a hiatus of undetermined length.
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