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The idea turned out to be right. Overnight, HBO went from cash incinerator to cash machine. The movie channel became a dominant force in the entertainment business, leading a young Paramount executive named Barry Diller to moan in 1983 that "if HBO and Time Inc. go unchecked, the motion-picture industry will be under total control of one company in less than five years." But even more important, it showed that consumers were willing to pay to subscribe for something that had always been given away free. Around the nation, small cable operators raced to copy Levin's idea. In Atlanta, Ted Turner read about Levin's exploits and borrowed the idea for a sat channel of his own, the SuperStation.
It was a kind of media trope last week to quote an anonymous Time Warner insider as saying that Levin had had a "charisma bypass." Levin is a quiet man. He doesn't have the voluble energy of a Mike Armstrong, the CEO of AT&T, or the raging fire of IBM's Gerstner. But Levin's brainpower, delivered first from a pedestal as Time Warner's strategist and futurist, has commanded the board of directors' attention. And so have his flameouts, riveting in the same way a NASCAR wreck is--all wheels, fire and smoking rubble. His track record, after all, includes half a dozen spectacularly costly crashes. Among them: TV-Cable Week ($47 million), a TV-information service called Teletext ($30 million) and, most famous, the Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla. (in excess of $100 million). You don't screw up like that and survive if you're just a waxen flack. But Levin's legacy also includes a number of sharp, Net-speed pivots when his business has demanded them. He considered, for instance, selling Time Warner's stake in Turner Broadcasting just months before deciding it was actually in the best interest of both firms to arrange a merger.
In the process, Levin has made an amount of money that might be considered excessive. (TIME founder Henry Luce liked to say that the profit motive, while "useful" was "not noble.") In 1998, Levin pocketed more than $250 million, including options--nailing in one year roughly twice what Luce was worth when he died in 1967. In Levin's mind, it is simply a case of high risk, high reward. And though Time Warner shares have had a bumpy ride, they've outgained the Dow--412% to 236%--since Levin took over in 1993.
In speeches, Levin likes to tell listeners about a game that H.G. Wells invented called Cheat the Prophet. Here's how to play: gather the smartest group of futurists you can find, ask them to describe the future, proceed to go out and undertake everything the futurists consider unthinkable or downright laughable. That's been Levin's career--and Case's. For decades the idea that every home in America would be wired with cable--or connected to a subscription online service--seemed unreasonable and even laughable in many minds.