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ZDTV starts broadcasting

Hoping to bring its print and Web content to yet another medium, Ziff-Davis launches its 24-hour cable channel.

Hoping to bring its print and Web content to yet another medium, Ziff-Davis today launched ZDTV, its much-anticipated 24-hour cable channel.

The programming is aimed at computer users of various stripes, including industry insiders, investors, and newer users. For example, Call for Help is a daily one-hour show offering advice for new and intermediate users on integrating computers into home and work life; The Money Machine is a daily half-hour show aimed at viewers who want to use computers and the Internet for investing and other financial concerns; and Fresh Gear is a weekly half-hour show covering new products and gadgets.

The TV project's accompanying site is categorized into several "channels": entertainment, interact, know-how, products, and ZDTV news. The channels integrate ZDNet content with that of the television shows. The Entertainment channel, for instance, offers information about a site featured on the Internet Tonight show, a profile of a Net gossip, and a link to an astrology section from print magazine Yahoo Internet Life's Web site.

"ZDTV and represent an all-new experience in television that will benefit audiences through discovery and interactivity," Ziff-Davis chairman and chief executive Eric Hippeau said in a statement.

The company's stock closed at 17.0625 today, up 0.0625 from Friday's close.

But observers have been skeptical about the viability of a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to computers. Some question the viability of computer-centric television programming itself.

"I'm not that big on 24 hours of computer-oriented television," said Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "What they're offering is premature. It would be different if it was targeted at WebTV users or cable modems. But it's hard to imagine 24 hours of strong computer-centric information."

Hardie noted that whereas in print and on the Web the company has a strong and sought-after brand name, on television it competes with all kinds of compelling programming, as well as established networks and cable channels.

"I don't know if Ziff comes to the table with enough to compete with [the likes of] Disney, the History Channel, or the Discovery Channel," he said, adding that "I'm not zeroing in on ZD--I'm focusing on what in my mind is strong broadcast content and strong players in that field."

Another challenge the company faces is selling the channel to cable providers, which already have too many channels to offer users. With today's launch, the company announced agreements with about half a dozen providers. Others, which signed on prior to the launch, include Prime Cable in Las Vegas, Harron Communications in Detroit, and Prestige Cable in Virginia. Greg Jarboe, director of corporate communications for Ziff-Davis, said more announcements are coming soon.

"They have to prove that they have something people are going to regularly watch," Hardie said. "I could see how a company like MediaOne might be interested in packaging it with cable modem service," but he added that Ziff-Davis could have difficulty selling the channel in major markets.

For its part, Ziff-Davis cited a study by research firm Frank N. Magid Associates that found that two out of three adults in households with cable or satellite TV have expressed interest in the type of content ZDTV is offering.

Still, Hardie pointed out that creating 24 hours of programming and trying to sell the channel to cable providers is "very different from creating one show and selling it to a station," adding that others doing that, such as CNET: The Computer Network, have struggled to gain viewership. (CNET, publisher of NEWS.COM, also has television programming about computers and the Internet.)

Ziff-Davis has tried its hand at television before--its show The Site, which ran on MSNBC, was canceled after about a year because of poor ratings.

One of the problems with television programming about computers and the Internet vs. content on the Web and in print is "the time constraint," Hardie added. "Users have to tune in when ZD says and watch what ZD puts on at a given time--whereas on the Web I can pick what I want and see it when I want to."

Advertisers that have signed on for ZDTV include Barnes & Noble, Canon, Charles Schwab, Dell, EarthLink, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Sprint, according to Ziff-Davis.