The Future of Web Journalism: Cable TV?
Spend, oh, thirty seconds with a TechTV executive and eventually you'll hear this refrain: TechTV wants to be to technology what ESPN is to sports. At the moment, however, the three-year-old cable network is not even to technology what The Game Show Network is to game shows…

Indeed, while the Game Show Network is available in 33 million households, TechTV currently reaches just 23.5 million. Still, that's a lot more than the 2.5 million it started with in 1998, when magazine publisher Ziff-Davis launched the network as ZDTV--and according to Larry Gerbrandt, COO of media research firm Paul Kagan Associates, it means TechTV has almost reached the holy grail of cable television. "Most cable channels falter when they can't get past 15 million households," he says. "If they get to 25 million, eventually they get to 50 million. And they start making serious money somewhere between 35 to 50 million." For now, however, TechTV has yet to turn a profit, and Larry Wangberg, TechTV's CEO and president, declined to comment on how soon the privately held company might accomplish that.

In 1999, TechTV got a boost when Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures purchased the network from Ziff-Davis. Vulcan also owns Charter Communications, the nation's fourth-largest cable operator, and not surprisingly, TechTV now gets strong carriage on Charter systems. But while that's a nice relationship, it can only take TechTV so far. "TechTV gets 14 or 15 million households from satellite delivery, so other than Charter, it's had trouble getting cable channel allocations," says Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Maryland market research firm. "And there's no clue as to how many of those households even know it's there, let alone watch the channel. It's easy to get lost in the cable clutter these days…"

Still, as TechTV COO Joe Gillespie points out, "We're not the fifth financial network, or the third woman's channel, or the twelfth sports network. We're the only technology channel." To date, however, the only technology channel has yet to produce the kind of signature show that any cable network needs to establish its place in an over-crowded mediascape. "If it wants to be another ESPN, where's its SportsCenter?" Arlen asks. "Does it have any show that's a must-see show? If it does, nobody's noticed it."

On April 2, TechTV unveiled its latest effort to change that situation: "TechLive," a daily block of live programming that stretches from 9 am to 6 pm, EST, and covers, according to Wangberg, "everything that happens in the day that's related to technology." At first glance, "TechLive" may not rank with frozen dinners or instant replay as a major TV innovation. But, ultimately, its impact could be fairly major. Why? Because it gives TechTV more opportunities to utilize its Netcam Network - over 15,000 registered users who can appear on TechTV to ask questions and offer opinions via their netcam-equipped computers.

The Netcam Network has existed as long as TechTV has - but until the debut of "TechLive," TechTV only featured around 3 hours of live programming each day. Now, with so much more live air-time to fill, the power of the Netcam Network increases substantially - throughout the day, there's a chance that you, the viewer, can interact with what you're watching, at that very moment, on TV. "And even if you never interact yourself, the fact that others are means you're no longer watching TechTV alone," says Greg Drebin, TechTV's senior vice president of programming and production. "And it's like the old adage says, 'Nothing gets a crowd like a crowd.'"

If that perspective sounds a lot like what drives MTV's "Total Request Live," it's no coincidence. Before he came to TechTV, Drebin was MTV's director of programming - in that capacity, he helped developed "Dial MTV," which eventually evolved into "TRL." With TechLive, however, he's upped the ante: the show run 9 times longer than "TRL," and thanks to the Netcam Network, you don't have to travel to TechTV's studio to actually appear on it. The big question: do TechTV's viewers, who are mostly 18 - 49-year-old males, love seeing themselves on TV as much as screaming, 13-year-old 'N Sync fans do? According to Drebin, yes. "On 'TRL,' it's 'Omigod, I'm talking to Carson Daly.' On TechTV, it's 'Omigod, [TechTV host] Leo LaPorte's answering my question about Cisco routers,'" he insists, with just a hint of caprice.

But the real promise of "TechLive" goes beyond affirmation from celebrity geeks. With so many potential sources and correspondents at its disposal, TechTV's "TechLive" could ultimately evolve into a kind of televisual Slashdot, where viewers do as much to advance stories and contribute opinions as TechTV's own staff. Indeed, the moment a story breaks, a "TechLive" anchor can query the network's viewers on the air: is anyone at or near the scene? Do they have information that introduces new aspects to the story?

"With "TechLive," we want interactive TV to mean more than just a new way to order pizza," Drebin says. "We want to allow our viewers to impact every other viewer's experience." To this end, Drebin says, "TechLive" will be offering around 7 to 8 minutes per hour of airtime to members of the Netcam Network. (In addition to regular viewers, some members are TechTV-chosen pundits and experts.)

It's possible, of course, that viewers won't have much to say - maybe they do just want to order pizzas. But what if TechTV, thanks to the interactive immediacy of "TechLive," becomes the first place people go when they have some inside knowledge they want to share about a new product release or the latest dot-com layoff? Online, sites like Slashdot and FuckedCompany have shown how that works: more inside information leads to a larger audience, and a larger audience leads to more inside information, and…well, you get the picture. If TechTV can apply the same dynamic to broader terrain, on cable, those aspirations of imminent ESPNhood may not seem so far-fetched after all.

-- G. Beato

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