Remembering Pixelon: A Former Executive Looks Back
Streaming Media: So the main part of the streaming tech was other company's technology?
Robert Feldman: Well yeah. The workflow and the design of the network is unique to Pixelon, and those of us in the back came up with it. We made it work, and it worked.
Streaming Media: Leading up to iBash, did you or anyone else try to warn Fenne the technology was not up to the job?
Robert Feldman: I don't know that we would call it warning with him, because he didn't like that kind of talk. We would say things like, "We're running a test, and things didn't go as we were hoping." But he would never really pay attention to anything we would say. He was certainly well aware of the shortcomings. We know today that unicast video is very difficult to do because you need a tremendous amount of bandwidth. So going into this and not knowing that much, thinking that everybody is going to be able to connect to the San Juan Capistrano office, and then when that fills up it rolls over to the Seattle one and then to the Dallas one. In theory it sounds great, but it just didn't really work.
Streaming Media: What was your role in iBash, Pixelon's infamous coming out party?
Robert Feldman: One thing I really have to say: iBash was not a total failure. I'm not defending it at all, but maybe a little bit. It did work. It really mattered when you tried to connect and how much bandwidth you had. If you were trying on a dial-up you weren't going to connect, but if you had a decent cable modem with mega bandwidth, you were going to maybe connect and have a decent experience. It wasn't a complete failure. It was just they mostly failed.
The whole iBash thing brought in a whole new crowd of people that I didn't like at all. These were Hollywood people. I didn't like the people that came in and the glitz and glamour of iBash itself, so I was looking for any excuse not to have to go.
I threw out the idea why don't we rent the Jumbotron in Times Square and simulcast it? And Michael Fenne loved that. He said, "Fine, you do that." So I loved it because I'm the only person working on that and I have my own budget to do whatever it want. Panasonic at that time, 1999, owned the one and only big screen that was there. You could rent it. I want to say it was like $70,000 for us to rent it for the two main hours of iBash, which we did.
I got there the day before and we're working on it and we think we've got it. We ran some tests. They seemed to have enough bandwidth. Then the next day comes, and we run a test and we can't get it to work. We don't know if it's their bandwidth. To be honest, we couldn't figure out what the heck it was. Me and the guys from Panasonic and a local guy. I'm thinking Michael Fenne's going to go ballistic. I'll probably be fired tomorrow.
One of the guys says, "I've got a satellite dish in my car. If I can get the cops to let me, there's a spot in the telephone pole where I can plug in and just pick up this transmission off the satellite that they're using and we can just beam it straight to the TV and it won't even go through Pixelon." I said, "If that's what it takes to get this fricking thing up on the screen, let's do it."
So this is the most amazing thing I've ever witnessed. This guy comes around in this beat-up station wagon. There was a light pole with wires sticking out of it, and he backs up to it. He goes over and talks to one of the cops. The cop looks at me and looks at him and says, "Okay." And he hooks everything up and in 15 minutes he's picking up the transmission, because the way it worked at iBash was they satellited it from the MGM Grand to the San Juan Capistrano office where they did the encoding and then sent it from there. So we were able to pick it up off of the same satellite that they were. And that's how it ended up on the big screen in Times Square.
Streaming Media: Was iBash the huge immediate failure we saw in Valley of the Boom? Were there consequences afterwards?
Robert Feldman: No, I believe it worked enough. We probably could have weathered it. The bigger consequence was the fact that Michael didn't use the right kind of lawyers when he did the contracts with the artists, so we ended up without the rights to any of the content.
We were encoding this stuff so that the whole concert was going to be online the following day. That would have been the big hit out of all of this. That's really what iBash was all about, and they missed it because they didn't have contracts. Every artist except for Kiss let them know the following day that they couldn't use their content.
That's really a shame, because we would have had that whole concert up. We were all up all night. I flew back from New York on a late flight after the iBash. We were in that office all night long encoding all the content, getting it up and then the next day we were receiving these letters and being told that we had to take the artists down. And before you knew it there was nothing left.
Streaming Media: How did the last days of the company play out?
Robert Feldman: Right after the iBash, there was a deal made with Seal. We did something with him, a live webcast. It was like two days later and I remember we were having a little problem. Michael actually went in the data center with me and went behind the racks. Everyone is freaking out because he's so big they were sure he was just going to wreck the place by turning around and wiping everything out. He was almost irrational; everything was really getting to him.
I had had regular conversations with Paul Ward and some of the other directors saying that Michael really is a detriment. Everybody believed it at this point. And now the [investors] from Advanced Equities were on board, so they were planning on coming to San Juan to extradite him from the company.
About a day or two before they were going to come to town, two plainclothes guys show up who are clearly armed and they are standing outside of Michael's office. Anybody that wants to go in has to go through them first. So that was the beginning of the bizarro beyond belief stuff, because half the employees didn't want to be in the building anymore and everybody was really uptight.
The second day that these guards are there, the guys from Advanced Equities are supposed to be in town. The whole thing is coming together. They need to diffuse it.
I called the local police, the Orange County Police Department and they said, well there's really nothing they could do because there's no threat that they can see. Through connections, we called someone at the Orange County PD. And then the SWAT team showed up to clear these guards out and diffuse the whole situation. That was the end of the end. They had the board meeting. It was all timed because we had to lock Michael out of everything the second they had the board meeting.
And then Michael disappears and Paul Ward is the CEO of the company. Those of us that hung in there through this believed that we could turn things around. We were really upset that they were paying Michael anything after all of this. At one point I almost into a fistfight with the CFO because I couldn't stand the fact that he was mailing a check to Michael when the rest of us weren't getting paid.
That was the point where I decided since I hadn't been paid in over a month that I should just pack it in and come home. It got really ugly in the end with layoffs, and Paul Ward didn't know what to do. We had a retreat up in Lake Tahoe, but it was more of the same. At that point we just gave up and it imploded. They had the bankruptcy sellout and that was the end of it.
Streaming Media: How long did the company survive under Paul Ward?
Robert Feldman: Maybe another 6 to 10 months after I left. The last straw for me was when they stopped paying the health insurance premiums and didn't tell any of us. I happened to throw my back out so I went to the hospital to get an x-ray and ended up with this huge bill because I didn't have health insurance.
Streaming Media: Soon after he left Pixelon, Fenne was arrested. What do you remember about that?
Robert Feldman: He turned himself in. Before that he went up to Big Bear, which is a mountain suburb of Los Angeles, because that's where the checks were going.
David Kim Stanley's brother showed up at the Pixelon office and told everybody the whole story of who David Kim Stanley was. He was hoping there was something there that he deserved or was owed, but at that point there was no chance. When it all came out about who he really was we knew we'd never raise money for the company again.
Streaming Media: Was there a time after you joined when you thought you were going to be super rich? The TV show made it look like everyone down to the receptionist had an idea this was a gold mine.
Robert Feldman: That was always the dream that was flaunted in front of everyone. There was a prevalent air that everybody's going to be rich.
Streaming Media: What was your total length of time with Pixelon?
Robert Feldman: A year.
Streaming Media: Now that you've watched all six parts of Valley of the Boom, what do you think of the series?
Robert Feldman: I actually enjoyed the Netscape portion better. I think they had more details with that, perhaps because they had more key people involved that were saying what really happened. The people that were speaking for Pixelon, I don't think they actually knew what happened. The producers were more interested in Michael Fenne and his whole stolen identity thing than in the fact that there were some good people that assembled there and we were able to do some pretty cool stuff with video tech in the earlier time in the industry.
Streaming Media: If Michael Fenne comes across this article, what would you like him to know?
Robert Feldman: I don't think he probably ever thought of me ever again, and I don't spend a lot of time thinking of him. I have to give him credit that he was a really good marketer. I know from my own business that having lacked that particular skill has held me back. It's too bad that he didn't apply his abilities in a more ethical way. But nothing was going to get around the fact that he escaped prison. So regardless of anything at Pixelon, however good the tech was, it didn't really matter if your founder was an escaped convict.
A series by National Geographic uncovers the absolutely true, incredibly bizarre story of Pixelon, the streaming video company that couldn't stream video.