Monday, August 29, 2005

TV For The Geek In Us

Once upon a time there was a little cable network named ZDTV. The ZD stood for Ziff-Davis, the magazine publishers who among other things publish PC Magazine and Computer Gaming World. The focus of ZDTV was technology and from the beginning their leading host was Leo Laporte. A few years later ZDTV was sold to Paul Allen and renamed TechTV, based in San Francisco.

Paul Allen was a "Friend of Bill". The problem was that he wasn't a "Friend of Bill W." or even a "Friend of Bill Clinton" it was worse ... much worse. Paul Allen was a friend of Bill Gates and indeed was the co-founder of Microsoft. Allen owned TechTV through his investment company Vulcan Ventures which also owned such things as Charter Communications the Portland Trailblazers and the Rose Garden Arena in Portland. The trouble was that the company made a number of bad choices, such as a nine hour a day live tech news program which later shrank to three one hour programs a day and eventually became a half hour daily show. Still, the network was seen by 40 million households across Canada and the United States, and had at least some distribution in some 70 countries.

There were problems however. In 2001 and 2002 Comcast Cable dropped TechTV from most of their cable systems. Comcast had their own network called G4 (which supposedly stands for four generations of video games and gaming platforms, although there are other theories which are less kind). G4 was focussed almost entirely on videogaming. G4 itself had a problem because a lot of non-Comcast cable systems were not picking up the G4 network. At the same time Vulcan Ventures was having troubles with its investments with the arena in Portland (which eventually declared bankruptcy in February 2004) as well as losses from TechTV. In March 2004 G4 and Vulcan Ventures announced the sale of TechTV to G4 which merged the two as G4-TechTV. In fact it was more full submersion than a true merger. Comcast had bought the network to gain access to cable systems which had previously not carried G4. The new entity immediately fired 250 existing TechTV employees and Leo Laporte left in a contract dispute. The remaining 80 to 100 employees were told they could keep their jobs if they relocated to Los Angeles. Only a handful of TechTV shows were actually retained, including The Screen Savers and X-Play which was TechTV's own videogame review show, although within a couple of months of the move to Los Angeles most of the on-air TechTV personnel were fired - today only four remain with the network - and in February 2005 Comcast dropped "TechTV" from the name of the network, returning it to G4.

Even before the elimination of "TechTV" from the name, the merged network retained the original G4's focus on gaming rather than technology. This posed something of a problem for many of TechTV's international partners most of which simply dropped the network programming when the merger occurred. There was a much bigger problem in Canada where, in order to get the network on digital cable Vulcan had entered into a partnership with the country's two largest cable companies (and not coincidentally two of the largest ISPs) Rogers Cable and Shaw Cable to create TechTV Canada which went on the air in 2001. Vulcan had a minority position in ownership which was inherited by G4. There were certain restrictions which Canadian regulations inflicted on the channel, for example not being able to show entertainment programming notably Anime Unleashed. Rogers and Shaw couldn't have been too happy with the sudden change in format and they certainly weren't happy with the drop in viewership which was beginning to happen almost as soon as the merger was announced. They had started a technology channel - and had good viewership for it - rather than a gaming channel. Even if losses in viewers didn't hurt them there was also their CRTC license renewal to consider. Rogers Cable decided that they needed to do something. What they did in August 2004 was to hire Leo Laporte to host a new version of Call For Help, this time based out of Toronto. Subsequently the program was picked up by the "HOW TO" Channel in Australia and there were active efforts being made to bring the show to an American station, efforts that were finally rewarded when, ironically, G4 decided to buy the show. It will start airing on the American network on Monday, August 29 at 11 A.M. EDT.

So what will American audiences be seeing? The simple answer is what they won't be seeing and that is a show exactly like the original Call For Help. There's a simple reason for this - it isn't live TV. Laporte hasn't moved to Canada; he lives in the Petaluma area of California and commutes to Toronto for one week a month to do a month of show episodes. This means no live calls and also no real technology news. In fact Leo Laporte has compared the new version of the show with the old TechTV version of The Screen Savers. There are phone calls but the basic questions are submitted in advance by email, allowing more research and more accurate answers to the questions, but less spontaneity. That doesn't stop Leo from displaying the same evangelical fervour for teaching people about everything from computers to cell phones and big screen TVs that he had when he was doing the original versions of Call For Help and The Screen Savers (not bad for a guy who admits that he started doing technology programming "to get free stuff"). The show also offers more technology related tips delivered by Laporte and his co-hosts, technology writer Andy Walker and journalist, and professional web designer Amber MacArthur. Walker's demonstrations of how things work - usually involving food stuffs - are infamous as well as both funny and informative. Unfortunately there are rumours, which seem to have been confirmed by a rather indicative "non-denial" that Walker wrote in his own blog on, that Walker will be leaving the show. There are a number of regular guests, notably Steve Gibson of Gibson Research who discusses Internet Security for personal computer users, and Photoshop expert Alex Lindsay. A recent addition to the show is former TechTV host Kevin Rose who is doing a number of segments each month - he too is flying up from California to do the show. The show is good, but viewers probably shouldn't expect the same show that they remember when the original Call For Help was on.

A more interesting question is why G4 has decided to bring back Call For Help? One suggestion is that the new head of broadcasting for Comcast is less than happy with the performance of G4. The simple fact of course is that while the acquisition of TechTV was an attempt to buy eyeballs the purchase alienated TechTV's original viewership. They bought households but those households didn't necessarily turn into increased market share. Indeed it it is interesting to note that one of the most popular series on the network is the old TechTV games review show X-Play with Adam Sesler and Morgan Webb. In addition to Call For Help The network is reducing its reliance on gaming further with the addition of a British science series called Brainiac: Science Abuse starring Richard Hammond and Jonathon Tickle (originally a contestant on the British version of Big Brother), and revived two old TechTV series, Nerd Nation and Future Fighting Machines. Think that they have to; the simple fact is that people who play video games aren't like golfers or participants in outdoor pursuits (two of Comcast's other networks are The Golf Channel and OLN (formerly the Outdoor Life Network). They would rather be playing video games that watching other people playing video games. My opinion is that G4 was built on a flawed model as a result, and the return of more generic technology focussed programming, including the addition of the new version of Call For Help is the first step in the right direction. Technology geeks can always find the sort of "fix" that they need - Laporte offers one of the most popular podcasts around with his This Week In Tech and has several other offerings, Kevin Rose has a weekly podcast called Diggnation that looks at the top stories on as well as a couple of streaming video shows through his company Revision 3, and even Amber MacArthur and Mike Lazazera (Call For Help's technical researcher and a frequent guest on the show) have a streaming video show called Command-N. However a conventional television show, even one on a cable network such as G4 or the old TechTV, reaches a far greater audience. As Rogers Media realised when they brought Leo Laporte up to Canada to revive Call For Help, the market exists for this kind of programming, it just needs to be reached.

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