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Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner


The Confrontation

Steve Case was blabbering on.

Or so thought some of the restless executives assembled in a conference room at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, the lofty Manhattan headquarters of the most powerful media company in the world.

It was the spring of , and AOL Time Warner Inc. was descending into financial disarray. But Case, the company chairman, was still enamored of the unfulfilled promise of the $ billion marriage of America Online and Time Warner, the largest merger in U.S. history.

The new company, barely a year old, boasted a staggering array of global brands on the newsstands, at the movie theaters, on television. Millions experienced the common denominator of life by reading its magazines, Time, People, and Sports Illustrated among them. Its movie studios regularly tossed off blockbusters like Harry Potter. From CNN to HBO, its cable programming extended across the far reaches of Earth, shaping public opinion and entrancing viewers. It even owned Mad magazine.

AOL Time Warner was an inescapable force: The Internet division, operating in seventeen countries in eight languages across Europe, Latin America, and Asia, counted more than thirty-four million on-line subscribers. Combined, AOL and Time Warner products and services reached consumers three billion times a month.

With all of this, Case argued, how could the company go awry?

Internet-driven America Online, the Virginia company he helped build two decades ago, would inject new life into seventy-nine-year-old Time Warner, the esteemed New York media and entertainment company he had taken over. The two companies would work together to forge a future when technology merged with media, creating unimagined consumer products, like television, only better. Convergence, he called it. One side of the corporate house would fuel the growth of the other. The buzzword: synergy. America Online would promote Warner Bros. movies. Time Inc. magazines would sell America Online subscriptions. AOL would tout new albums by Warner Music Group artists, like Madonna and Jewel. The potential for what he believed was the media company of the twenty-first century was limitless.

Except for one thing: Somebody forgot to tell Case the dance was over.

Jeff Bewkes, the HBO chairman and chief executive, could not contain himself any longer.

he erupted, glaring at Case.

Dead silence.

No one knew what to say—not even Case. He sat there, poker-faced. The rest kept mum. It wasn’t clear yet which side of the divided house would prevail in a roiling internal power struggle, America Online or Time Warner. AOL, though it had lost some of its luster, was still the over-lord of Time Warner. Bewkes, however, had just uttered what some of his colleagues had been muttering about for months: The problem was America Online, not Time Warner! Yes, Case was still chairman of the combined company. But just look at the house he had built: America Online was a bloody mess. Revenue at the on-line division was stagnant in the just-ended first quarter, which was bad enough. But a key part of America Online’s revenue, advertising and commerce, had taken a big hit. Meanwhile, the Time Warner businesses were humming along just fine. The cable division had reported a double-digit revenue increase. Even its music business, in the doldrums for months, appeared on the upswing, generating a modest rise in revenue. And though HBO’s financial numbers weren’t broken out publicly, everybody knew it was doing gangbusters. That was the company’s real crown jewel! Not America Online! Whom did Case think he was talking to? How dare he lecture them!

Until then, executives had refrained from saying as much. This was, after all, polite society. But HBO’s Bewkes could get away with challenging the chairman now. Bewkes had long been Time Warner’s golden boy. An Ivy League grad who was being groomed for a bigger office in the executive suites, Bewkes had rattled off a string of successes at HBO, including original programming, like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, that made him virtually untouchable at Time Warner. What’s more, Bewkes was holding an ace in the hole: He had been given the green light to read Case the riot act. The okay came from an ostensible Case ally: Dick Parsons, AOL Time Warner’s new chief executive officer.

It was a seismic shift, a tangible manifestation of the transfer of power, tinged with a dose of irony. Case had played a key role in ditching Jerry Levin as the company’s CEO in December , clearing the path for the elevation of Parsons to the top job. Now, however, Parsons was taking the muzzle off his own people—Time Warner loyalists like Bewkes—who didn’t want to take any more guff from America Online, the brash, young interlopers from the suburbs of Virginia. Parsons, ever the polished politician, didn’t want to duke it out himself with Case. A proxy fight was more tactful.

said a company official.

After the meeting broke, Time Warner executives approached Bewkes tentatively, quietly. There were some whispers: Atta boy. Way to go. Good for you.

It was a stunning reversal for Case, the erstwhile dot-com boy wonder who suddenly faced a monumental struggle for his own corporate survival in this, his personal denouement. What had begun as the triumph of the new economy over the old economy at the dawn of the new century had become a merger derided as an epic disaster. Bewkes had finally said it: The emperor had no clothes.

said a company official,

Part I

The Unlikely Rise

of an Internet Giant

Chapter One

A Footnote in History

A powder blue Grand Marquis rumbles down a quiet suburban road, approaching faded memories not visited in decades. Hunched behind the wheel is Alan Peyser, a weathered old man, pushing the pedal in white sneakers, searching for the home of a friend long gone.

Peyser grumbles, making a sudden right on Basil Road.

Another quick right on Orris Street, and the Grand Marquis comes to a stop at the end of a cul-de-sac.

There it is: a cavernous, two-story yellow-brick home with big windows and white shutters, a picture of prosperity in McLean, Virginia, a tony suburb of Washington, D.C. "The Sound of Music House," Peyser used to call it.

Daisies and shrubs frame the marble entranceway, whose double doors sit shaded under a cool white canopy. Other people live here now. They are not home.

It’s a brilliant fall afternoon, and the sky is crystal blue, but Peyser refuses to get out of his car anyway.

Maybe it’s his bum right knee, which he’s resting with a jostling bag of ice cubes, the aching residue of a tennis match he just played and doesn’t want to talk about. Or maybe he doesn’t want to remember.

Once upon a time, when he was a man in his prime, Peyser wounded his knee on the tennis court hidden behind this grand house. He stepped on a twig and blew a cartilage during a match against his old tennis foe, who used to live here.

Peyser wants to know.

It is. But the court looks abandoned, cracked down the middle, weeds sprouting from the gaping crevice, like the ghostly grounds of Miss Havisham’s, where time is left to rot. The surrounding fence is overgrown with more weeds, and a basketball and volleyball idle by the torn tennis net.

Peyser and his old friend used to play a match here once a week, and after the game (which Peyser usually won), the two men would sit at the kitchen table and, over a glass of juice, dream up wild technology to invent, impossible business ventures to create, a whole wide world to conquer….

That’s enough. Peyser doesn’t want to think about his old friend anymore. He shifts into drive and pulls off.

he says with a shot of impatience.

But then, Peyser is ensnared by something—a glimpse into the past, maybe—and he stops the car on the side of the road, facing away from the house. He dumps the bag of ice out of the driver’s side window.

With faded gray eyes, he squints at the passing traffic in the distance as the past begins to come into focus.

He remembers his good friend, who had the crazy idea that, one day, people would use computers—computers!—to communicate, that people would use computers in their homes to entertain themselves and retrieve a wealth of information.

Imagine electronic mail, news, stock quotes—anything. A stream of information would flow from computer to computer through telephone lines, like blood coursing through arteries, giving life to a new digital world. The power and promise of technology would link people together in a global network, sweeping them up in a computer revolution.

Ridiculous. Absurd. Science fiction.

Peyser chuckles. Nothing was impossible to his old friend, who would create a little company that would fundamentally change the world, a little company that would grow up to become AOL Time Warner, the largest media company on the planet.

And his name was not Steve Case.

Peyser says,

Billy von Meister looked like a normal child: slightly chubby, bespectacled, curious. But once he scampered up to the attic, he suddenly became a mad scientist in a little boy’s pair of shorts and striped T-shirt.

Up there, he liked to blow things up.

recalled Peter, his younger brother.

Billy conducted chemical experiments on a Ping-Pong table, the perfect surface on which to spread out his bubbling concoctions. At the age of six, he was obsessed with the idea of building a rocket to send Mittie, his beloved German nanny, to the moon.

At Blue Chimneys, a sixty-acre estate in pastoral Mendham, New Jersey, Billy held the title of miracle child, the firstborn to parents who had thought they couldn’t conceive.

William von Meister was different from the beginning, which in his case was February 21, A gifted child, he could read exceptionally fast, boasting phenomenal retention skills that required special test equipment. Even his own siblings were in awe.

Together, the children grew up amid privilege in a grand, whitewashed brick home in the s. There were a cook and a butler and a maid and a sewing room and, outside, a large vegetable garden, towering trees, and a lake, where the children splashed around in the summer, and a steep, long driveway, where they went sledding in the winter. Yet Billy gravitated to the attic.

His experiments always seemed to involve a connection of some kind between two points. Earth to the moon, by way of a rocket. Or two tin cans attached by string. Can you hear me? His sister, Nora, would hear a faint echo from one empty tin can, nothing more. Yes, I can hear you, she would say, hoping to please her big brother. she said.

His was a mind in constant motion, wondering how to make things better, absorbing huge quantities of information, comprehending it all, then adapting concepts to his own creative bent. And so it was that Billy graduated from tin-can experiments to building walkie-talkies to wiring intercoms between rooms. Each was a connection. A way to make contact. People talking to each other from distant locations, from point A to point B. Billy learned Morse code. He weaved electronic entrails to build himself a ham radio. Late into the night, up in the attic, the little boy could be heard talking to people all over the world. Paris, Saudi Arabia, Washington…

It was as if Billy had an insatiable need to reach out to someone who wasn’t there, which often happened to be the case with his parents.

His father, Frederick William von Meister, was a busy man who owned his own offset printing company. His mother, Eleanora, was the scion of a wealthy family and worshiped little Billy but kept a full social calendar, leaving much of the children’s upbringing to Mittie and the other servants.

Not that Billy seemed to mind. He found a way to reach out, at least to his father: He built him a gizmo.

A wireless transmitter, it was about the size of a loaf of bread with an orange indicator light and a big antenna. On his way home from work, his father would hold the device outside the car window and push a button, which would send a signal to another antenna attached to a receiver box on the kitchen counter, setting off an alarm.

said Peter, the younger brother. Thus warned, the servants would prepare a cup of tea for the master of the house. Peter said.

Little Billy was just getting warmed up.

As an adult, Bill von Meister was a big kid. Indefatigable. Optimistic to the point of delusional. He was like a cackling Amadeus, only more irrepressible. Or the ringmaster at the circus. Come one, come all. recalled Michael Schrage, a former Washington Post reporter who chronicled many of von Meister’s business forays in the s.

In his home, von Meister shot darts at a board with the kind of blow-gun pygmies used to assail wild animals in the jungle. He had a big-screen television, the best stereo money could buy, and a gaggle of video games. He was a pilot, too, and he raced cars (including a modified BMW M with a souped-up engine). Along the way, he earned a clutch of silver cups from amateur competition and costly moving violations on the open highway.

Peter said.

It was all part of Bill von Meister’s voracious appetite to consume life. He was partial to red wines and good scotch and vodka—to the point that he became an alcoholic and checked into rehab once. He was also a lover of red meat, expensive restaurants, forbidden cigars, and lavish expense accounts, and he smoked three packs of Marlboros a day, claiming no adverse health effects.

But more than anything else, von Meister loved to create.

There was his aborted Spirits of America, a whiskey-shipping business in the early ’70s. There was TDX Systems, a telecommunications company founded in in which von Meister made a bundle with his old tennis partner, Al Peyser. There was The Source, the first embryonic on-line service, which von Meister built in to give people access to a mainframe computer for some text-based information, including news, weather, and electronic bulletin boards.

he once told a reporter.

Especially in his case.

said Schrage, who went on to become a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Bill von Meister had a unique way of getting rich people to invest in his loony ideas. Better yet: He had a way of taking their money and not giving it back.

said Marc Seriff, a key technological expert on some of his adventures.

Von Meister and his brother, Peter, perfected a technique to extract maximum dollars from the money men. They called it the

It worked like this: Von Meister would invite a venture capitalist down to Washington, usually a fairly young, well-heeled executive from one of the big brokerage houses in New York. That’s when Bill and Peter, who served as his personal lawyer, would do the dog and pony show at the office.

In the early s, the latest loony idea was called the Home Music Store. Von Meister’s idea was to beam music—rock, pop, country—up to a satellite from a studio in Utah, which was financially backed by the Osmond family. Yes, those singing Osmonds. The satellite would beam the music down to the local cable television system, which would send the digital signal into people’s homes, where the music would be tape-recorded on their stereo. The technology actually worked, von Meister would gleefully explain to his visitors.

After which, the whole group would head to von Meister’s home in McLean, where the liquor flowed freely. This would be followed by dinner at a swank place like The Palm, a celebrity hangout in downtown Washington, where the potential investors would be massaged with more spirits. (Von Meister spent so much time at The Palm that the restaurant eventually framed a caricature of the offbeat entrepreneur.)

Toward one in the morning, von Meister would bid the lubricated visitors adieu and, by the way, see you at 6 A.M. for a tennis match at my place. When morning arrived all too soon, he’d trounce them. A quick shower and a power breakfast later, the visitors would begin to droop, their resistance down, whereupon von Meister would move in for the kill, leaning on them about how much money they should invest in his latest scheme.

Peter said.

•  •  •

Warner Bros., as it turned out, was less pliable.

High above Manhattan, circa , men in suits sat at a conference table in a tower at Rockefeller Plaza. Von Meister stared across at a polite executive, who wasted no time in delivering the bad news: Warner Bros., the big entertainment company, was backing out of an agreement to license its music for von Meister’s proposed venture, the Home Music Store.

In a measured tone devoid of emotion, the Warner Bros. executive explained himself: Delivering music directly into people’s homes via satellite and cable would completely shut out music retailers, literally choke off their money supply. In other words, people wouldn’t go to the store to buy Warner Bros. music anymore. (Two decades later, record companies would echo the same argument, claiming that Napster, the free on-line music-sharing service, threatened to hurry bricks-and-mortar retailers into extinction.)

The Warner Bros. executive didn’t mince words. Retailers are threatening to throw our records in the street, he told von Meister. Without the cooperation of retailers, the game was over. The Home Music Store isn’t going to happen, he said.

You can’t do that! von Meister shot back. We had a deal!

The executive was unflappable. Look, you can’t pick a fight with us, boys. You don’t have the money. But maybe there’s something we can do. He suggested that von Meister consider the video-game market. If von Meister could digitally deliver music into people’s homes, why couldn’t he digitally deliver video games instead? Warner Bros. owned Atari, the hottest video-game console on the market. Talk to our people.

It was a consolation prize. But von Meister, sensing an opportunity and all too willing to turn on a dime, agreed instantly.

And just like that, Bill von Meister entered the video-game business.

George M. Middlemas knew exactly what he was getting himself into from the moment he stepped off the plane in Washington into the unruly world of Bill von Meister. He had been warned.

Keep von Meister out of the first-class lounge at the airport. That’s what people told Middlemas, who got the implied message. If you give von Meister money, he’ll spend it lavishly on personal predilections, such as expensive wines, not to mention costly business ventures. Which was why Middlemas was in town in late

A venture-capitalist at Citicorp Bank in New York, Middlemas was down in Washington to decide whether to invest in von Meister’s latest foray in the video-game business.

Middlemas said.

The venture capitalist was a natural skeptic, notwithstanding von Meister’s reputation. It was part of the job. Middlemas had to be doubtful. The only way to pinpoint the good idea to invest in was to find the fastest path to reject the bad ones. Think Darwin. Another Middlemas principle: People weren’t the most important thing. That was a myth of venture capitalism. The truth was, he was investing in ideas and markets.

Hence the meeting. Middlemas liked the idea: video games. And there was a potential market: teenage boys.

Von Meister, ever the technical whiz, had developed a cheap and fast modem—basically, a little box with a lot of electronics stuffed in it. The modem, like a video-game cartridge, plugged into an Atari game console. The modem also connected to a telephone outlet, which allowed video games to be digitally transmitted to the Atari. Von Meister’s modem was like a middleman, the bridge between bits and bytes of information traversing through the telephone line into the video-game console, delivering such fare as Video games—which cost $1 per session—would be ordered by credit card. The modems would cost $ retail.

That was the pitch to Middlemas. From his side of the conference table, von Meister gave off a child’s delightful glint, emitting a low, rolling chuckle, laughing to himself, like Willy Wonka on steroids. It was as if he were gleefully saying, Aren’t I clever?

And then he started ranting about the injustice of the music business, how Warner Bros. had reneged on a music deal, how the corporate world had stabbed him in the back. But now, things were different! On-line video games! This was a great idea! And there was no corporate muscle to get in his way!

Across the table, Middlemas was thinking, I’m talking to a wild man.

he said.

Fortunately, von Meister was smart enough to offset his manic presentation with a sedate sidekick, his numbers man who calmly went over the venture’s financial projections. Middlemas said, assured by the sidekick’s even keel.

What’s more, Middlemas thought this was a great idea. Later, he would scold von Meister for his errant behavior:

But on that day, the two men simply shook hands. Within weeks, they had a deal: Middlemas forked over $, for his video-game venture, and von Meister raised another $,

For a creative genius, von Meister was strangely at a loss to come up with a jazzy name for his newly funded venture. When nothing else came to mind, he settled on Control Video Corp. by default, the thinking being that the technology lets you, well, control your own video game. It wasn’t sexy, but it sounded solid, even reliable, which, given von Meister’s haphazard track record, was not an insignificant consideration.

What’s in a name anyway?

In his view, the real issue was: How do we get a child to order an on-line video game with a credit card?

Bill von Meister promptly spent $5, on a hot-air balloon.

Tethered at the Tropicana Hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas in January , the enormous balloon announced in big red letters the arrival of his new video-game service: GAMELINE.

He didn’t want to pay for a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show, a big trade confab in sin city, so he did the next best thing: He hired show-girls.

A clutch of buxom ladies in sequined bikinis, high heels, and glittery headdresses escorted potential customers to his lavish suite at the Trop to demo the new product. See the most exciting game ever invented! And if that didn’t work, von Meister figured he’d lure the crowd with a contest drawing for a one-ounce bar of gold.

said John Kerr, who served as von Meister’s top salesman and best friend.

The girls or the gold were a big hit. Either way, it worked. Orders came pouring in that evening for about , of the little boxy modems. Control Video was on its way.

People took notice, including one bystander who quietly observed von Meister that night, a preppy introvert with a jutting jaw and boyish flop of hair over his serious brow. His name was Steve Case.

It wasn’t love at first sight. It was strictly business.

Steve Case was president of a consulting business called The Marketing Group. In his own corporate literature, he described the firm as a

The Marketing Group was essentially two people—Case and a friend. Case was president of a company that was little more than a name slapped on paper. The firm’s letterhead showed a sophisticated San Francisco address— North Point—but that’s all it was. Mail sent to San Francisco was forwarded to a miserable little apartment in Wichita, Kansas, where Case lived and hated his day job.

His career rise had been less than spectacular. First, Procter & Gamble, the giant consumer-products company, flatly turned him down for a marketing job. Not taking no for an answer, he flew out for an interview on his own dime and landed a job as an assistant brand manager. Among his forgettable products was Abound, a hair-conditioning towelette that could be massaged onto the scalp. The slogan:

Now, he was, in his own written description,

Translation: Steve Case spent most of his time traveling to small pizza shops, testing pizza flavors. (He scored pizza on five categories: crust, dough, sauce, cheese, and topping.)

Steve Case was in his mid-twenties and quickly disappearing into the morass of middle management.

That is, until he came to see von Meister in the desert. Case was invited to Vegas by his older brother, Daniel Case III, an up-and-coming investment banker at Hambrecht & Quist, who was helping to bankroll von Meister’s new video-game venture. Dan, also a member of von Meister’s board of directors, made the introductions.

The rest has become the stuff of Steve Case lore, like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about business. It goes like this: Steve Case and von Meister hit it off over dinner. They both agree that the on-line video-game market is just the beginning of something that will change the world. During a bathroom break, von Meister asks Dan whether he can hire his little brother as a consultant.

Wonderful stuff—except it didn’t happen that way.

said John Kerr, von Meister’s right-hand man, who was in Vegas that evening. In fact, von Meister never asked Dan to hire Case. It was the other way around: Dan called von Meister and asked him to hire his little brother. Steve Case got his big break—the job that would set him on a course of fame and fortune—through a simple case of family leverage.

The story was corroborated by Marc Seriff, von Meister’s technology guru, when he gave a videotaped brown-bag seminar to AOL employees in April , just as Seriff was preparing to ride off into the sunset of retirement. In the video, he said that Dan called up one day and requested that the company hire his little brother.

Seriff said.

That Steve Case knew nothing about the video-game business didn’t matter. Seriff said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Von Meister agreed to hire him. In the process, Steve Case earned a nickname that stuck: Dan, his big brother who had set him up with von Meister, was dubbed, naturally,

•  •  •

The remarkable thing about Stephen McConnell Case was just how unremarkable he was.

His was an upbringing played out across America in the ’60s and ’70s—the only difference being that he did his growing up in an affluent home with a view of the clear-blue Honolulu skyline.

The third of four children of a lawyer and a retired schoolteacher, Steve Case was born on August 21, , and lived an uneventful childhood marked by the easy rhythms of Cub Scouts, Little League, set mealtimes, required chores, and one hour of television after homework. He was an average student. He liked rock and roll (the Rolling Stones). He wrote music reviews for a small teen publication in Hawaii.

Perhaps, however, there was a hint of Case’s future in business: As a child, he and his older brother, Dan, started a limeade stand. Later, they went door-to-door, selling greeting cards and garden seeds. They built a corporate structure of sorts, with a holding company called Case Enterprises. Eventually, the family started calling Case’s bedroom his Dan was the front man, the dynamic salesman who did most of the talking. Steve, careful and reserved, preferred the quiet, detached task of handling the back operations.

But more than the childhood ventures, what distinguished Steve Case’s youth was his sibling rivalry with Dan—a searing experience that fueled the younger brother.

They were born only thirteen months apart, but Dan was always a giant in Steve’s eyes, the fair-haired older brother, the family star, a straight-A student whose constant success overshadowed the younger brother.

Dan understood as much. A few years before he died of a brain cancer, he said,

Their paths, however, collided on occasion. Sometimes, it was just a rough game of pickup basketball. Other times, it was a burst of violence between the boys. Ultimately, they learned to negotiate their way through the competition. When it came to college, Steve made an early choice, picking Williams College, their father’s alma mater. His B-plus grades were sufficient. That, combined with decent extracurricular activities (he was editor of the high school newspaper) and the legacy factor, was apparently enough to get the Hawaiian resident into the small Massachusetts college in Dan opted for Princeton University.

While Dan went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and then a rising investment banker, Steve flailed. There was little to suggest greatness looming in his future. He applied to several MBA programs and was rejected by them all. He couldn’t get a job at HBO, a division of Time Inc., then being run by a rising young executive named Jerry Levin. He took a job with Pizza Hut that looked like a dead end.

Steve Case had taken Computers in college and hated it. But when Dan opened the door to a consulting gig with von Meister’s on-line video venture—a firm steeped in the computer technology of the day—Case seized the opportunity.

It turned out to be one of the smartest moves of his entire career.

The job also paid a princely sum for a young marketing man trying to get out of Kansas: $20 per hour, for a total of $9, for his consulting expertise, plus expenses. (Case promised to stay in cheap hotels and fly special coach.)

What von Meister got for his money was a set of detailed reports in which Case gave a good rendering of the Procter & Gamble school of marketing: business objectives, product positioning, corporate identity.

said Kerr, von Meister’s sales executive.

But the reports also gave some insight into Case’s early thoughts about how to do business. Among them: thwart the competition. For the video-game market, his advice to von Meister was, The idea was to make it difficult for other players to get into the same business.

Case also showed a Machiavellian side, telling von Meister, Case talked about avoiding the product through deep discounting. And he reminded von Meister to be of an on-line product that could suggest an

But Case grasped the broader implications of von Meister’s venture. Video games were just the start. The little modem could also deliver into people’s homes a stream of other digital information—electronic mail, stock quotes, sports.

In his reports, Case talked about positioning the video-game service as a Not right away, though. First, grab the But in year two, Case said, the strategy would be to show that the product

Actually, this wasn’t Case’s insight; it was von Meister’s. Indeed, through the GameLine modem, Control Video was preparing to introduce, in stages, such features as e-mail, sports news, and on-line banking. In an all-but-forgotten company pamphlet from the early ’80s, von Meister boasted of turning

GameLine wasn’t just a game. It was a window into the future of the personal computer, the PC. There would be Mailine! Stockline! Bankline! Newsline! Sportsline! This is how von Meister pitched the little gizmo to retailers:

said Kerr.

Von Meister, said Middlemas, the investor, understood that the video game was,

As early as February , industry insiders got a whiff of von Meister’s big play. announced Teleservices Report, an industry newsletter.

It noted, however,

Details weren’t von Meister’s strength. He was thinking big picture all the way. In a company publication, von Meister called his modem,

That, history would show, would be an understatement.

Bill von Meister was dashing down the hallway of his little company—did he move any other way?—when he made a quick pivot and poked his head in the doorway of a colleague: he quipped,

He was joking, of course. But in the jest, there was a kernel of truth. Only a few months after the debut of its GameLine service in July , Control Video was in trouble.

Credit an unfortunate confluence of factors: The company was spending a

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