Editor's Note: Don't Call It a Comeback
Whether his venture succeeds or fails, the involvement of an A-list Hollywood star like David Caruso in a streaming video startup says volumes about the level of attention online video is receiving these days.
When rapper LL Cool J decided it was time to reinvent himself in 1990 after a commercial slump and critical dismissal, he knew it would be pegged as a comeback attempt. Unwilling to accept that trivialization of his most recent work, 1989’s Walking With a Panther, he made sure to put his critics in their place with the first line of the title track from his next record, Mama Said Knock You Out: "Don’t call it a comeback," he spat. "I’ve been here for years."
Anyone who’s been in our industry since its beginnings can relate to that sentiment, and streaming media veterans understandably chafe at the notion that streaming somehow went away during the lean years of 2000 to 2005. These days, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an online video startup, but it was these core players—the ones whose tenacity and ability to adapt to market needs kept them going, the kind of people we honored last issue as the Streaming Media All-Star Team—who kept not only themselves but the entire industry afloat and moving forward so that this supposed "comeback" would be possible.
David Caruso knows a thing or two about comebacks. After he rose to stardom in the first season of NYPD Blue, Caruso left the series halfway into the show’s second year to pursue leading-man status on the big screen. A couple of flops later, the man who TV Guide highlighted as one of six "new stars to watch" was little more than a late-night comedy punchline.
A decade later, of course, Caruso’s having the last laugh. As the lead on CBS’ CSI: Miami, which just wrapped up its sixth season and consistently places in the Nielsen Top 10, he’s become one of only a few franchise players in Hollywood. In fact, the show was ranked by Informa Telecoms & Media in 2006 as the most popular televison show in the world, based on a survey of the Top 10 shows in 20 different countries. Caruso’s acting has more than its share of critics; his signature "catch-phrase-pause-put-sunglasses-on-finish-catch-phrase" delivery makes him still the butt of jokes, only this time they’re more often on YouTube than on Letterman. But there’s no getting around the fact that the guy has figured out how to connect with his millions of fans.
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Caruso’s latest venture, Lexicon Digital Communications (the subject of this issue’s cover story starting on page 28) has met with its share of skepticism. Combine the fact that it’s yet another new streaming media startup—and one still in "stealth mode," no less—with the fact that Caruso’s acting is (in the words of one of his own business partners) "polarizing," throw it into a culture where snarkiness passes for serious analysis, and you’ve got a public relations disaster waiting to happen. If Lexicon Digital Communications fails, the bloggers will be lining up to throw dirt on its grave and say "I told you so."
So you’ve got to ask yourself why Caruso and his partners—business development whiz Frank Nein and technology wünderkind Nils Lahr (who was writing object-oriented databases for the U.S. Geological Survey when he was 16 and helped create Windows Media and co-founded iBEAM, one of the first CDNs, when he was still in his 20s) are so eager to tell their story. They make no bones about the fact they’re looking for investors, but there are less public ways of going about that than doing the interview circuit at CES, making a music video and posting it on their website (talk about opening yourself up to ridicule), and agreeing to be interviewed for a cover story in this magazine.
Nein’s got the confidence of a martial arts master (which he is); Caruso’s got the Hollywood muscle and attitude (though he’s more than just a high-profile figurehead). But it’s Nils Lahr that gives Lexicon Digital its credibility in the streaming world. While there’s no guarantee that what he’s got up his sleeve will match the successes of his past, there’s no reason to think he’s blowing smoke when he says that his latest ideas have the capacity to change the rules of not just streaming media but the entertainment industry as well. It’d be tempting to look at Lexicon Digital Communcations as Nils Lahr’s comeback attempt, but like the man said, he’s been here for years, working quietly on some very cool things of his own, including the streaming video technology that allowed director James Cameron to film the wreck of the Titanic and enables the real-time video indexing used by several NBA teams.
The fact that Caruso, Lahr, and Nein are willing to put their reputations on the line says as much about where our industry is at as it does about their abilities or confidence. Whether Lexicon Digital fails or succeeds is hardly the point. Streaming media is bigger than ever. Just don’t call it a comeback.