Giving gamers a full-time fix

Charles Hirschhorn plans to offer 24-7 coverage of computer and video games on his new G4 cable channel. Will it win over viewers--and just as importantly--advertisers? He's betting big bucks that it can.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
4 min read
You're deeply entrenched in the couch, hands are slightly number from three hours of committing virtual felonies in "Grand Theft Auto III," and you're thinking maybe it's time to take a break.

Instead of chilling out with some Limp Bizkit, TV programming executive Charles Hirschhorn hopes gamers will use those moments to tune into G4, his new cable channel devoted to video and computer games.

G4 launched Wednesday with a weeklong marathon of images of "Pong," the first hit video game. After that minimalist experiment, G4 will introduce a lineup of 13 original programs devoted to every aspect of the game experience, from profiles of gaming "celebrities" to advice on cheating.

Cable TV giant Comcast, G4's parent company, expects to spend $150 million to get the channel running and hopes to break even in five years. Getting there will mean recruiting many more cable systems and satellite carriers to offer the channel. G4 is currently available to about 3 million cable subscribers on Comcast and Insight systems.

Hirschhorn, CEO of G4 Media, thinks he can make a successful pitch based on the growing economic clout of the game industry and a demographic likely to attract attention from advertisers. Most game players, and consequently potential G4 viewers, are the 18- to 34-year-old males coveted by advertisers pitching everything from soda to cars.

"The demographics certainly make this channel more appealing to advertisers and cable and satellite affiliates...only because there's so much for other demographics," said Hirschhorn, a former Disney and Fox Broadcasting executive. "There's lots of kid channels, lots of female channels, lots of channels for older adults. There's just not much for 18- to 34-year-old males.

Hirschhorn told CNET News.com how he expects to keep G4 in the game.

Q: First off, tell me about the "Pong" thing. Is that a joke?
A: No, it's absolutely what people see when they tune in right now. You tune in and you watch competitive "Pong" play. I think it's quite compelling. These games are much more competitive than you think.

It's not such a nutty idea. Last Christmas, the Yule log was the top-rated show in Manhattan on Christmas morning.

How did G4 come about?

"I think the roots of video gaming that has made it so successful is that it's interactive and it's entertainment."

I came up with the idea. I've been a fan and admirer of the video game industry for years. The growth of the industry is spectacular, in terms of the hours people play, the penetration of consoles in people's homes, the evolution of graphics. Anyway you look at it, I think it's the most dynamic part of the entertainment business.

Yet it's received virtually no attention from television. I just think it's a fascinating area, and I feel honored to give it some of the recognition I think it deserves.

What kind of response are you getting as you try to get cable systems to add G4 to their lineups?
We're in negotiations with pretty much all the major cable and satellite operators, and they all seem very interested. G4 has a number of things going for it. It's an appealing demographic. It's all original programming, which cable operators really like because so many channels are syndicated stuff.

And the growth of gaming is appealing to them. The evolution of computer-generated entertainment, things like "Toy Story" and "Ice Age," is compelling.

It seems like your big challenge is that you compete for viewers' time with the same material you cover. Why would someone want to watch other people talk about a game instead of actually playing the game?
The simple answer is you create compelling entertainment; you create programming that not only is compelling and creative but offers real value in terms of information and news.

"We're in negotiations with pretty much all the major cable and satellite operators, and they all seem very interested."

It's the same question you could ask a golfer or cook: Would you watch a golf show or a cooking show? Certainly all the evidence there is that they will. We think the same is true for gaming. Anyone who is passionate about a pastime wants to be informed and entertained about that interest.

But cooking and golf happen somewhere else, whereas you're competing with games for control of the TV set.
That means you have 'em where you want 'em. They're sitting down to watch something on their TV. So we're trying to get them to put down the game pad and pick up the remote.

It seems like G4's closest precedent would be TechTV, which has had a lot of trouble attracting viewers and cable systems. How do you avoid their path?
To me, technology is a whole different industry. I think the roots of video gaming that has made it so successful is that it's interactive and it's entertainment.

Technology is different. It's more of a science base and a business base. It's just a different kind of programming from what we're doing.

There's been a lot of crossover between games and other forms of entertainment lately, with movies like "Tomb Raider" and "Resident Evil." Is that the kind of thing G4 might get involved in?
Our goal is to complement the game industry any way we can. If there's a way we can help people develop feature films or television series based on games, that's certainly something we would be interested in.