When HDNet, a high-definition network largely based in Denver, announced that it would be teaming with former CBS anchor Dan Rather, questions about the slant of his soon-to-debut show, Dan Rather Reports, quickly bubbled to the surface. But Mark Cuban, the billionaire co-founder of HDNet and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, insists that neither Rather's philosophy (which, according to his critics, tilts leftward) nor Cuban's own reportedly Libertarian views had anything to do with the move to acquire this high-profile free agent.
"My politics are so all over the map I couldn't even find someone who looks at the world as I do, let alone hire them," Cuban notes via e-mail. "I don't hire based on politics. I hire based on ability."
Rather, speaking from Reports' New York offices, has much the same attitude. "I don't know what Mark's politics are, and I don't care -- and he doesn't care what mine are as far as I have them," he says. "My only bias is to do reporting that doesn't cave in to people in powerful positions.
"When I refuse to report the news the way somebody wants it reported, increasingly those people will say, 'We'll hang a sign around you and use every means at our disposal to make people see you in a negative way,'" he continues. "But professionally, I am what my record is. And what my record shows is that I'm independent -- fiercely so, when I think it's necessary. And what's encouraging to me is, the audience gets it."
They'll have the chance to do so again when Dan Rather Reports is unveiled at 6 p.m. on November 14, but only if they have access to Rather's new broadcast home -- and there's no guarantee of that. HDNet and its sister channel, HDNet Movies, are part of the lineup offered by some prominent U.S. cable companies, including Adelphia, and it can also be found on DISH Network and DIRECTV, two of the country's largest satellite-TV operations. Yet Comcast, the firm that supplies cable-television content to the majority of Coloradans, not to mention millions of others from coast to coast, continues to reject HDNet mainly because of bandwidth issues; high-definition channels require a bigger chunk of frequencies than their traditional counterparts. For this reason, the typical Denverite doesn't realize that HDNet exists, let alone that a sizable percentage of the nearly 200 or so full-timers on the network's payroll report to work at Colorado Studios, located in the Stapleton district. Finding out about it requires more than simply knowing its dial position, as HDNet chief operating officer and general manager Philip Garvin acknowledges.
"Many of my friends and neighbors had to switch to satellite in order to get us," Garvin allows. "And although DISH and DIRECTV have been great partners, it's still very disappointing to me that people have to do that in order to see the network I co-founded and run."
Garvin calls the genesis of HDNet "serendipitous." A producer and writer with 34 years of television experience, he landed in Colorado in 1983 to oversee a production center for The MacNeil/Lehrer Report shortly before it doubled in length to become The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He declared his independence a couple of years later, and by the following decade, he was running Colorado Studios and Mobile TV Group, which specializes in mobile television production. The latter firm wound up providing services to the Mavericks, "which is how I was introduced to Mark," Garvin remembers. "He wanted to do Mavs games in high-def, so we started talking about that. And after a while, he said, 'Let's not mess around. Instead of just doing NBA games, let's start the first high-def network.'"
Cuban, a Pennsylvania native who moved to Dallas in 1982, certainly had the resources. In 1999, he sold Broadcast.com for $5.7 billion in Yahoo stock, and thanks to wise investments, he managed not to lose this windfall when the market collapsed. He's a mere 428 on Forbes magazine's most recent list of the 500 wealthiest humans, but that still makes him worth approximately $1.8 billion.
The high-def project launched in 2001, and in its five years of life, it's carved out a handful of specialties: movies, sports, concerts, interview programs and travel shows that spotlight exotic locales and the pulchritudinous women who cavort there (one is titled Bikini Destinations). But news is part of the mix, too, and has been since long before Rather came on the scene. HDNet World Report features contributions from two prominent broadcasters with local ties: Pat Woodard, who worked at Channel 7, and Greg Dobbs, a former ABC News correspondent who hosts Colorado State of Mind on Channel 6. But a significant emphasis is placed on international reporting and coverage in war zones, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have over twenty high-def camera-crew setups and 67 stringers around the world covering events in high definition on a daily basis," Garvin points out.
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Nevertheless, Rather's jump to HDNet took many industry observers by surprise. His protracted departure from CBS followed a 2004 scandal pertaining to President George W. Bush and his stint in the National Guard; when damning documents at the heart of the story couldn't be authenticated, Rather had to retract the report. But despite these circumstances, Cuban stresses that Rather was very much in demand after leaving CBS earlier this year. "He was swamped with offers from other networks, in particular on cable," he maintains. "He chose the network that was most differentiated from the way things are always done: HDNet."
The fact that a single individual was in charge was attractive to Rather as well. "I was looking for what Bill Paley was in the 1930s, or what Ted Turner was in the late '70s -- someone who owned their own entity and had a passion for news," he recalls. A mutual acquaintance suggested that he meet with Cuban, whom Rather knew mainly from the Mavs. ("I'm a basketball nut," he says.) But when they got together in February, the men found further common ground in their admiration for CBS legend Edward R. Murrow, the subject of Good Night, and Good Luck, a George Clooney-directed movie that Cuban executive-produced. When Rather revealed that he wanted to model his next program on Murrow's classic See It Now series, "Mark said, 'I can do that,' which took me aback. But things moved very quickly after that. He told me he wanted me to have complete, total and absolute creative control, and he's been better than his word in every category. I don't know if I've found a 21st-century version of Bill Paley or Ted Turner, but if I haven't, I've found someone as close as I reckon I'm going to get."
With a staff of only around twenty, Rather says he feels like he's working "without a net" on Reports -- but in some ways, he prefers knowing there isn't one to thinking there is and discovering otherwise. "I don't spend time thinking about CBS News, and I don't think they spend time thinking about me. It's in my rearview mirror," he says. "But in a large corporate setting, it's increasingly difficult to know who makes the decisions about whether you get backup. And Mark is no stranger to controversy. He knows how to handle heat, heavy heat, and I appreciate that."
As for Cuban, he can afford to shrug off the gripes of conservatives and anyone else who has a problem with Dan Rather Reports. As he puts it, "I think media critics take sides and attack whoever they think is on the other side. It's a shame, but true. Which is why we don't pay attention to the way things have always been done."