Mark Cuban and Avner Ronen met in person for the first time just before their Pay TV vs. Internet debate here at South by Southwest Interactive — about 20 minutes before their session was interrupted by a fire alarm. But they argue like a married couple that’s been together for 20 years, complete with sharp barbs. That’s because the debate isn’t new: they started that drill online a year ago and neither has budged as best I can tell — if anything, their attitudes are more entrenched. HD Net founder Cuban believes in subscription TV and sees Ronen, the CEO of Boxee, as representing free-only; Ronen believes TV over the internet is the present — and the future but a la carte. He’s not anti-pay per se — Boxee is working on a pay offering — but anti-establishment TV. Cuban doesn’t see an internet TV business model that works yet.
“If you’re counting on the internet replacing cable, you’re crazy,” says Cuban; Ronen posits it as generational — if you”re 50 with HD, you’re comfortable the way things are; if you’re 23 and getting your first apartment, you see things differently. Cuban doesn’t see the same possibility of making money from TV online; he’d rather get small amounts — when he can — from multichannel distributors.
Ronen on Redbox: “You’re already going to the supermarket to pick up condoms and you’re picking up the movie.”
Cuban: “When you’re in an a la carte universe, the cost of marketing goes through the roof.”
Let’s make a deal: But he told Ronen: “If you offer me $3 a sub for all million of your subs, I’ll do it.” Ronen replied, “If I bring you a deal that pays you three bucks a sub …” Cuban reminded him it would take a guarantee. Ronen asked if he would do with a guarantee. Cuban said yes and offered him the same as the HD Net rate card: “You take rate card for a half-million subs and you’ve got a deal.”
Who’s the man: A former DirecTV (NYSE: DTV) subscriber talked about dropping the service because he got tired of paying “the man” for bad service. Cuban: “What Avner’s saying is he wants to be the man.” Ronen: “Boxee is an open source project .. if we’re becoming the man, if we’re trying to get too greedy” someone else can come in.
Update: Thinking about this one after the fact, Cuban came across (ego and all) as the one more willing to accept change as long as it’s accompanied by pay and Ronen as the one with more to prove.