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Are Demo and TechCrunch50 fragmenting their audiences?

With both events scheduled to start Monday, many press, as well as venture capitalists and others are having to choose which one to attend.

Michael Arrington's TechCrunch50 event, which will put the spotlight on 50 start-up companies, begins on Monday, just as DemoFall, which features 72 high-tech companies and their products, gets going. Dan Farber/CNET Networks

Update, 12:36 p.m. PDT: Business Week now says it is planning to send a reporter from its print side to DemoFall to complement the online reporter it is sending to the TechCrunch50.

If you're a fan of high-tech product announcements, next week could well be heaven for you.

That's because starting Monday, both DemoFall and TechCrunch50 begin, each of which showcases dozens of brand-new products. And on Tuesday, Apple has scheduled one of its semi-regular press gatherings at which CEO Steve Jobs is sure to unveil some hot new iPod, Mac, or iPhone models--or some combination thereof.

Between the three events--Demo in San Diego, and TechCrunch50 (TC50) and Apple's PR event in San Francisco--most of the high-tech press, analysts, and venture capitalists will be busy writing up dozens of stories on the announcements, analyzing them, or (for some) trying to decide if there's anything worth investing in.

So as a reader or industry observer, it doesn't get much better than that.

But if you're one of the 122 companies that are scheduled to be featured at Demo and TC50 (plus the several dozen more at TC50 that will be secondary presenters), you would be within your rights to be a little bit disappointed that the potential audience for your presentation will necessarily be fragmented. After all, before this year, Demo and TechCrunch50 were scheduled for different weeks and therefore didn't present the press, analysts, and VCs with a difficult decision about which event to attend. And that meant that as a presenting company, you had the undivided attention of those three key constituencies.

But not this year.

In April, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington and Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis, the two main partners involved in putting on TC50, announced the dates for their event. It turned out they coincided exactly with DemoFall, which had scheduled its dates long before.

Arrington and Calacanis argued vociferously that their event was actually on the same dates as it had been the year before, while DemoFall had moved several weeks on the calendar. And they said that their chosen venue in San Francisco had not had any other available dates that fit their needs.

Of price and previews
At the same time, Arrington took the opportunity to inject his unique brand of enthusiasm for an issue, in this case a major distaste for Demo, by laying into that event. "Demo needs to die," he told me in no uncertain terms.

"It's just an old-school model," Arrington elaborated at the time. "It clearly involves pay-to-play, and what we're offering is better."

By pay-to-play, he was referring to the fact that Demo is charging the 72 companies that will present in San Diego a five-figure fee for the opportunity to do so. TC50, by comparison, is charging nothing for the 50 companies that it will showcase.

Both charge hefty fees of at least $2,500 for most attendees.

In an interview Thursday, Arrington reiterated that he feels that Demo's business model is a "payola scheme that is fundamentally dishonest."

"I want them to change their business model," Arrington said, insisting that he wants what's best for the technology companies that present at the two events.

TC50 is built around highlighting 50 start-up companies and their products, while Demo's presenters can be start-ups or established outfits. But both events require that the products on display be brand new, with no previous public exposure. Demo gives press advance access to a list of the presenting companies and their products (in order to allow for stories to be ready to run when the event begins Monday), while Arrington has been adamant that no advance information on TC50's companies will be available to anyone.

To many, the decision to place TC50 head-to-head with DemoFall was a classic challenge from Arrington and a way to draw a tremendous amount of attention to his event.

The gambit succeeded in that regard, with dozens of stories about the conflict at the time and since.

And in the months that followed, Arrington has hardly been silent on the matter. Most recently, he got up in arms about a barely noticed charge of plagiarism against Calacanis by a former Demo organizer, which was quickly disavowed by current Demo director Chris Shipley.

So what's someone who would like to be at both events to do?

Who's covering what?
CNET News is among the few news organizations that has the personnel to be at both events, and we will be covering the two--plus Apple's announcement--thoroughly. But many media outlets don't have the resources for that, and will have to choose. And the same is true of individuals for whom being in both cities over the course of the two days will be tricky.

The reasons for the choices those outfits make are varied, of course.

BusinessWeek.com is covering only TC50 because Demo's winter event, which is held in January or February each year, gets the site's attention then, according to Tom Giles, editor of the site's technology and science channel.

"We've got limited resources, obviously, and we have to deploy them as strategically as we can," Giles said. "We just haven't (ever) really put a lot of emphasis on Demo in the fall. (But) the fact that BusinessWeek.com isn't sending somebody there this year is unrelated to the timing of TechCrunch50."

For his part, Arrington acknowledged that some companies presenting at TC50 might end up with less press coverage, and therefore feel some "pain," than they might if some news organizations weren't sending reporters solely to Demo. But he added that he thinks "almost all the press is going to be at TC50."

One news organization that will be at both is Wired.com, according to news editor Leander Kahney.

We've "got to cover both," Kahney said. "TechCrunch is the new kid on the block, (with) lots of buzz. But Demo still pulls interesting companies."

For venture capitalists, perhaps the audience that the presenting companies at both events most want to impress, the timing conflict is a chance to decide if one or both gatherings are really worth the hype. But because of the high-profile nature of the conflict, many VCs are loathe to have their names associated with the kerfuffle.

"Demo has been around for a long time, (and) it's respected, but there's a feeling that it's rested on its laurels a bit, that it's lost its luster," said one Silicon Valley VC, who is going to try to attend both Demo and TC50. "TechCrunch is seen as the up and comer and that they want to take out the incumbent. It's unfortunate because Demo has tried to stay above the fray. No one wants to take sides. It's kind of silly. The party that loses are the start-ups."

Shipley agreed.

"I think it fractures the audience" for both events," the Demo director said. "We have a remarkable media list (of) nearly 100 media (representatives) coming to our event to cover these events. But lots of organizations have had to make a choice."

Divided attention
Back in April, I wrote flippantly that the winner of the head-to-head battle would be the one that lured The Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg. And if that truly turns out to be the measure of victory next week, then Demo is already the winner, since Mossberg and his colleague Kara Swisher both have said they will be in San Diego.

But to Shipley, it's not really about which event comes out on top, since both seem certain to be packed. Instead, she laments the divided attention the presenting companies will receive.

"I really think the story here is the companies," Shipley said. "And I hope that as the media cover these events, they keep that in mind, because these guys have worked hard. If the story's about two media companies having a fight over the dates, that just doesn't do the (presenting) companies justice."

That said, Shipley is willing to acknowledge that Arrington's argument that his event serves its presenting companies better by being free--and therefore, presumably more honest in its selection process--has raised the awareness of both events.

"In some ways, I should be thanking Michael," she said of Arrington. "He's brought a lot of attention to these kinds of events."

On the other hand, not everyone in the industry sees value in either.

"I wouldn't spend time or money on either," said one San Francisco venture capitalist. "For me, the content of the show is secondary to the attendees. What's really funny is I've gotten about 30 e-mails from people coming from out of town, who I'll likely meet outside of the venue."

On the other hand, the VC is very familiar with the two events and what they have to offer, and isn't that impressed this year.

"If there was a huge differentiation in content, people would choose one or another," the VC said. "From what I can gather...the quality of these has dropped. I think they've had trouble finding (enough) interesting companies."

CNET News' Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.