Mohn Masters Future

Jun 20, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In the 1990s he was the CEO who oversaw the transformation of Movietime into E! Entertainment Television. It was on his watch that “Talk Soup” and the “E! True Hollywood Story” were created and Howard Stern’s radio show joined the lineup. He was known then as Lee Masters, a moniker he created when he was a youthful radio disc jockey.

His birth name was Jarl Mohn, a legacy from his Norwegian ancestors. It is the name he prefers to go by these days. In his early 50s, he is semi-retired, spending his time on philanthropy, social causes and a string of savvy investments that have made the once middle-class kid from Bucks County, Penn., extremely wealthy.

He has shown a knack for recognizing business trends in communications early on and then working or investing in the areas he found promising. In the 1970s that meant moving from AM to FM radio just as FM was becoming dominant. He went from disc jockey to station manager to owner of stations.

He worked at MTV and VH1 in the late 1980s, where along with executives such as Judy McGrath, Doug Herzog and Van Toffler, he oversaw the growth of the music channel into a global cultural touchstone.

After E! Mr. Mohn worked with legendary investor John Malone and his team, overseeing Liberty Digital, which among other things made early investments in Priceline.com, TiVo and other Internet start-up companies. By the time he left Liberty Digital in 2001, when the company was folded back into its parent, Mr. Mohn had become rich. “It was then I made the decision to create the Mohn Family Foundation,” Mr. Mohn recalled last week, “and spend time on philanthropy and a few carefully selected investments.”

Today he sits on the boards of CNET, E.W. Scripps and XM Satellite Radio as well as those of five nonprofit organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the USC Annenberg School and KPCC-FM in Pasadena, Calif. But it wasn’t until recently that he found the one investment that would allow him to get involved on an even deeper level.

“This was my new world, what I’ve decided to do with the rest of my life,” he explained. “I wanted to find a company where I could make a financial investment, where I could be an active board member and then work very closely with the management team, and the investors, to help increase the value of the property.”

What hooked him was the idea that consumers would watch television over their cellphones. He understood it would never replace the experience of a big screen in the privacy of the family home. However, he intuitively knew that people might want to watch while standing in line at Starbucks or while stuck in a waiting room or in an office or at the airport. “People take their cellphones out and use them, whether it is to make a call, for games, to check e-mail, check their calendar, surf the Web,” Mr. Mohn said. “It has become a diversion. It is something people like to do to fill time, just like television. People do that naturally when they are in their houses. People love their cellphones. They love their television. It seems like a great fit.”

Mr. Mohn is announcing this week that he has invested in and joined the board of Idetic, and he will be a senior advisor to the Berkeley, Calif.-based software company. His involvement will primarily be with a fast-growing division called MobiTV, which has quickly emerged as one of a handful of television networks for mobile phones.

If you have a Java-equipped high-end phone and get service from Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless or several other regional carriers, you can now get television streamed directly to your handset for an additional $10 a month. The video content is provided by MobiTV, which offers about two dozen channels, including MSNBC, ABC News Now, NBC Mobile, Fox Sports, Discovery, The Weather Channel and Major League Baseball.

The image quality is not yet as good as your regular TV, but it is rapidly improving as cellphone providers upgrade their networks to what is known as 3G, the third generation of wireless service. That means increased capacity for high-speed data and TV signals. MobiTV and Verizon’s V-cast have emerged as the leading providers of TV over cellphones in the United States, where development of such services lags behind many countries in Europe and Asia.

Sprint TV is a video-on-demand service, offering both short- and longer-form content. MobiTV, also available from Sprint, streams linear networks in real time. MobiTV has the capacity to offer unlimited choices, since content is sent down the electronic stream only as ordered. That is different from analog or digital TV, which constantly transmit every channel offered.

“I have been able historically to spot technological trends, and that’s what I see here,” Mr. Mohn said. “This one actually for me was easier to spot than the others because the U.S. is not as far along in the development of the cellular technology platform as some other countries, especially Korea, Japan and some European countries.”

The reception so far from U.S. broadcasters has been mixed, Mr. Mohn said. “Some understand this is a new platform and it needs to be priced differently than when you offer it to a cable system or satellite provider,” Mr. Mohn said. “It’s used differently. People watch for five minutes at a shot. They’re not watching hours of programming at a time. And they typically only do it a few times in a period of a week.”

Most deals that MobiTV makes with existing TV networks are based on the number of subscribers, with fees that grow along with the customer base. “Right now it’s a nice incremental source of revenue,” Mr. Mohn said. “It’s also a great way to help build a brand.”

Other investors in Idetic, which is run by Chairman and CEO Phillip Alvelda, include savvy veteran venture capitalists such as Austin, Texas-based Adm. Bobby Inman, Menlo Ventures and Redpoint Ventures. Mr. Mohn is convinced he is in good company.

“I was there when FM radio took off,” Mr. Mohn said. “I was there when cable took off. I was there when the Internet took off. And I really feel in my gut that this is going to grow as fast if not faster than these others. I think it’s going to be a huge business. And this company, MobiTV, is the first one doing it. They’re the leader in the category. I can’t tell you how excited I am about it. I haven’t been this excited in a long time.”