Hit the reset button, if you will, and go back to the Silicon Valley of the mid-1990s. It was the dawn of the Internet age as we know it today and more than a decade before Apple’s iPhone revolutionized cellular communications.
Those who remember the days now billed as the dot-com 1.0 era will fondly recall Netscape, one of the first companies to harness the potential of the World Wide Web with its then-revolutionary web browser.
The company went public in 1995, making hundreds of millions for its founders and the venture capital firms who backed it and piles of profits for other savvy investors — maybe even your mom, if she was willing to bet on the future of digital disruption Netscape launched.
Its massive success shoved the company directly into the crosshairs of Microsoft, which wanted its own browser, Internet Explorer, to reign supreme and would seemingly stop at nothing to crush its rising competitor.
No spoiler alert here. We know who won.
Score bonus points if you remember TheGlobe.com, founded in 1995 as one of the first online communities — a precursor to Facebook and other ubiquitous social networks most of us use every day.
And then there was Pixelon, a Southern California startup that saw the future of high-quality streaming video online — before the technology of the time had the bandwidth to handle it.
This is the landscape trod by National Geographic Channel’s six-part limited series “Valley of the Boom.”
Created by Matthew Carnahan, who executive produces with Arianna Huffington, the series melds drama with documentary elements — including interviews with key participants like Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, AOL co-founder Steve Case, Broadcast.com co-founder Mark Cuban and TheGlobe founders Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman — even as actors including Bradley Whitford and Steve Zahn play key characters.
We caught up with Carnahan by phone from his Los Angeles office to discuss the unique format of the series, looking back through the lens of the visionaries of the time and lessons learned from the first Internet boom — and bust.
TVWeek: Let’s talk about the intermingling of the real and fictionalized characters and how you made that work.
Matthew Carnahan: It was an interesting experiment. We didn’t know whether it would work as well as intended. It was a many-layered process to figure out how to combine the scripted and unscripted and it ended up being about 75% scripted to 25% unscripted. What we weren’t sure about — and what I was worried about — was would at some point the real people be more interesting, or would the made-up versions be? We were able to figure out a balance where they supported rather than detracted from each other. The real people are so compelling and interesting, so we had to get actors who possessed that intelligence and who made bold choices. You can’t have a dummy playing a genius, so we got a wonderful ensemble of really intelligent people to play this band of characters who are really diverse and interesting and who actually changed every minute of our world today.
TVWeek: It’s a complicated story running on multiple tracks so how do you explain it visually when a lot of it is about (mostly) guys sitting in front of computers?
Carnahan: As we began to dig in to the world of Internet 1.0, I started to realize these people were really creative, effecting something from whole cloth that no one had made before. We decided that we needed to create an environment that was as disruptive as the world that these creators were inventing back in the ’90s. We also had a lot of technical processes and ideas to explain, so we needed to find ways that were dramatic, fun and comedic. As the browser wars heated up and Microsoft started winning we did a Godfather-like series of assassinations to portray the company taking out players from Netscape. Some were classic explainers we tried to explode and some were to dramatize something emotional, like what did it feel like to be 24 and have the biggest tech IPO in history. We did a giant flash mob on the streets of New York with dancers and puppies and money flying around.
TVWeek: The Globe guys who had that IPO you just mentioned are especially fascinating characters. People may not be as aware of the company as they are of Netscape — and how it crashed and burned.
Carnahan: Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman founded the social networking site in their dorm room at Cornell when they were 22 and nobody thought the Internet was ever gonna be anything. Cut to Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. They were really talented young designers, engineers and founders who went from a dorm room to getting the largest single investment from a single investor — $40 million for them to grow the company and prep for an IPO that came at a rocky moment before the big crash. They decided to IPO anyway in 1998, and ended up having the largest tech IPO opening in history. People in technology don’t ever look at history and the lessons of those who have come before them. The Internet and technology boom is old enough to learn lessons from but most people in tech who are truly genius and incredibly smart don’t seem to draw from it. History shows that every civilization has an extinction event or demise or a series of them. I feel like people in tech could benefit from looking in the rearview mirror.
TVWeek: So much of this is about the mania on Wall Street over these technology stocks and the media frenzy that fed it even further. If you had a time machine and could go back, what companies would you invest in?
Carnahan: I’d go back and invest in Amazon, Apple and Google. It is really remarkable how during these gold rushes we will throw our money at an idea on a cocktail napkin, that one idea that, however flimsy, you go after because of FOMO [fear of missing out].
I’m kind of amazed how often everyone was wrong. [Netscape co-founder] Marc Andreessen, a true genius, got it wrong a lot. He thought Netscape would still trounce Microsoft in a business-to-business capacity. Even he didn’t see where it was going.
He didn’t see Cambridge Analytica coming, but Mark Zuckerberg didn’t either. I’m surprised how easy it is to be wrong and how much is determined by timing. But just being right once is enough to create incredible wealth and success.
TVWeek: Pixelon has got to be the craziest part of this story. It was apparently mostly smoke and mirrors and led by a con man, so well portrayed by Steve Zahn.
Carnahan: The story was fascinating, especially the first iteration of it when they came out with a big party headlined by the Who. It’s reminiscent of what you later saw with [blood-testing startup] Theranos. Always during a gold rush, people populate the edges or even in some cases the center and profit off of either a great idea where the technology doesn’t exist or is not able to perform. David Stanley and [Theranos CEO] Elizabeth Holmes were amazing showmen. He was a preacher’s kid from Appalachia with the ability to charm people and convince them he was someone they should follow. He was able to raise $30 million without a driver’s license. He had a great idea about streaming video, to be full-screen and full motion. I mean, look at today’s Netflix. He didn’t have the science in place. Same with Elizabeth.
TVWeek: What are the lessons to be learned and what do you hope viewers take away from “Valley of the Boom”?
Carnahan: On the positive side, this was a time of unbelievable innovation and these people were scientific and creative geniuses, some of whom changed our lives completely and irrevocably. On the functionary side, it’s worth looking at the facts of Netscape, Pixelon and TheGlobe.com, and that Microsoft created a monopoly and got in trouble.
That’s the cautionary tale and one worth looking at in our ancestry — even in something as young as the Internet.
(“Valley of the Boom” premieres on National Geographic Channel Sunday, Jan. 13, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, 8 p.m. Central.)