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TechTV shifts programming focus

The cable channel plans to trade high-tech visionaries and digital music trends for features on the technology behind food processing, football and other everyday phenomena.

Signaling a major shift in focus, cable channel TechTV said Tuesday that it has cancelled roundtable discussion show "Silicon Spin" and halted production of digital music program "AudioFile."

With the programming shake-up, TechTV said it is betting that the future of high-tech cable TV is in consumer-oriented fare, not computer code or controversy. "We're expanding the definition of technology that we cover from computers to technology that's all around you in everyday life," said Greg Drebin, senior vice president and producer for TechTV, a 24-hour cable TV channel launched by Ziff-Davis and now owned by Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures. "It ('Silicon Spin') was targeted a little more to the industry than our viewers accepted."

Like most media companies--particularly those with a high-tech focus--TechTV has struggled against a cratered advertising market and a sluggish economy over the past 12 months.

Another challenge to the TV station has been the encroachment on its news turf by the major networks.

"Computers are becoming more and more mainstream and getting covered by all the networks," said Fred Davis, a founder of Prosumer Media, a potential competitor to TechTV. "The competition plays hardball, and you don't go in there playing whiffleball...In the TV game, until you have 20 million people watching regularly, advertisers don't feel like it's valuable enough for them to bother with."

TechTV declined to discuss its financials and said its first Nielsen ratings would not come out until April.

But Drebin refuted the notion that the programming shake-up came in response to poor financial performance. TechTV is now available to 30 million cable-equipped homes, and the company exceeded its first-quarter ad sales goals, he said. Current advertisers include Gateway, Dell Computer, DirecTV, General Motors, Chevrolet and Compaq Computer.

"We're very confident that we're succeeding," Drebin said.

"Silicon Spin" and "AudioFile," which runs until September before a decision is made on producing future episodes, will be replaced by entertainment and consumer-oriented programs expected to launch the week of April 1.

"Eye Drops" will feature animated shorts produced with high-tech tools, and a series called "The Tech of..." will examine the technology behind products, services and other everyday phenomena. First up are half-hour episodes on food processing, football and bomb squads.

TechTV is not alone among cable-oriented media companies in eschewing hardcore tech news. Prosumer (originally launched as Consumertronics Media) is also planning to cover consumer products and services, as opposed to news about computer technology, business and policy.

"We're very cautious about not being a trade-industry network," said Drebin. "We're making sure we don't go down the rabbit hole of being too insidery."

The programming shake-up is the latest in a series of upheavals for TechTV. Following its sale in 1999 to Vulcan, TechTV has had repeated layoffs. Earlier this year the company said founding Chief Executive Larry Wangberg would step down; a search for his replacement is ongoing.

"Silicon Spin" launched in May 1998; "AudioFile" launched in August 2000.

With the cancellation of "Silicon Spin," TechTV also loses one of its more controversial personalities, John Dvorak, at least as a regular contributor.

In 1999, Dvorak riled feminists and Mac users with his review of Apple Computer's then-new iBook.

"Looks like a makeup embarrassment...can only describe it as a 'girly' machine," Dvorak opined. "You expect to see lipstick, rouge and a tray of eye shadow inside when you open it...No man in his right mind will be seen in public with this notebook...I can just see the executives gasping when they first saw it: 'We said make it look like a Compaq, not a compact!'"

Dvorak will continue to serve TechTV as an occasional guest host.