News

Cable network's game isn't just games anymore

Cary Darling
McClatchy Newspapers

It's like they gave some random 18-year-old dude his own network.

Take the latest word on video games, toss in some viral videos, some geek news ("We gear up for the Transformers convention!") and talk about "guy shows" ("Lost," "Heroes," "Battlestar Galactica"), sprinkle it with snarky irony ("You got the new Iron & Wine CD? It rocks, dude") and a spritz of TAG body spray. The result is G4TV, the cable outlet once devoted solely to video games but now branching out as a young men's lifestyle channel.

Beginning in January, the Los Angeles-based network even inaugurates its first reality show, "The Block," about party-hearty life at a California snowboarders' hotel. But the face behind G4TV doesn't belong to some teenage punk ditching English class to run a renegade station out of his basement for his buddies. It belongs to G4TV's 41-year-old president, Neil Tiles, a former DirecTV marketing VP who in 2005 was tapped by the channel's corporate parent, Comcast, to give the relatively little-known station an audience beyond hardcore gamers.

"We've spent the last year evolving away from 100 percent video games," Tiles explains. "It's still the cornerstone of what we stand for, it's the demographic we're targeting, but (games) are not the only thing they're interested in."

Some G4TV programming kept around from the days when it was known as G4TechTV (a 2004 merger brought together the then 2-year-old G4 and the very similar TechTV) includes "Attack of the Show," a pop-culture news hour, and "X-Play," a video game-review series. And, sure enough, there are other programs -- like "Cheat," which offers tips and shortcuts, and "Tokyo Game Show," about what's new and hot -- aimed at the gamer audience.

But now they've been joined by "Star Trek 2.0," an interactive take on the original series, in which viewer feedback appears onscreen; rubber-burning car shows like "Street Fury" and "Formula D"; the seriously twisted animated series "Happy Tree Friends"; and reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Arrested Development," "Cheaters" and "The Man Show."

This puts G4TV on a programming collision course with the likes of SpikeTV and The Cartoon Network, other outlets with a heavily young male viewership. And indeed, the executives at SpikeTV are watching their new competitor with interest. Still, they think their own mix of action, hobby and sex appeal -- original movies like the upcoming "The Kill Pit" starring John Leguizamo; the gamer-themed infotainment show "Game Heads"; and a steady diet of ultimate-fighting championships -- will keep Spike viewers loyal. (Spike is available in 90 million homes, G4 in 60 million.)

"I hear about (G4TV) becoming a general-entertainment, men's-lifestyle network, and I've been down that path with this network," says SpikeTV General Manager Kevin Kay. "I don't think men are interested in lifestyle. We tried that with 'Ultimate Guys Vacation' and giving grooming tips. I don't want to be a bad men's magazine. What we've learned is you've got to give guys the five major food groups: girls, games, gadgets, cars and guys beating the crap out of each other."

Not that anyone's going to confuse G4TV with the Style network. You're still more likely to see alien extermination than facial exfoliation. Besides, says G4TV's Tiles, Spike skews much older than G4TV, so, in a sense, it's not direct competition. "Their average viewer is 42; ours is 28.

"What we're doing is TV for the iPod generation," Tiles continues. "We're sticking to our roots in technology, but I see our competition as networks that are more similar, like (Cartoon Network's) Adult Swim."

Spike's Kevin Kay concedes that his viewers are older, but says, "We're not looking to 21-year-olds. Our sweet spot is 36 and 37, and we're getting very close to that."

So far, Tiles says, the move to widen G4TV's audience is working. The network claims that it is the most-podcasted cable channel in the U.S., that its Web site has had more than 25 million page views and that the network earned a 1.1 rating this summer (each ratings point is roughly 1,102,000 households). That's not much ratings punch by CBS standards, but it's reputable for a niche cable network.

There's been some carping by aficionados of the old G4 and TechTV who don't like the drift to lifestyle programming. The complaints underscore what a tightrope a network walks when it tries to expand its viewership.

"They were definitely a geek channel beforehand, and it was an interesting set of circumstances that gave rise to their birth: gaming becoming more mainstream," says Dean Takahashi, the author of "The Xbox 360 Uncloaked" and a technology writer at the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. "The irony is, they're chasing away (the gamer viewer) with the likes of 'The Man Show' ... It's not going to help them in the long run if they broaden (too much) ... It's a very weird interplay where they are trying to appeal to more than geeks, yet they exist because of gaming."

Tiles maintains that the network had no choice but to evolve. "Unfortunately, whether (the gamers) like it or not, we're a business first," he says. "We're preserving much of what they like and are familiar with, but we believe there's a larger audience. We're looking for success with VoD (video on demand), the Web and podcasting, and we're targeting early adopters, (ages) 18-24. We already are where TV is heading, so in a very real sense, this is the way networks will be in the future."

___

A QUICK PEEK AT SHOWS ON G4TV AND SPIKE

Both G4TV and SpikeTV are moving in interesting directions with their programming. Here are a few highlights. (Parents should note that because G4TV is aimed at young men, some of its shows' content -- video-game violence and mildly sexual material -- may be inappropriate for young children. As G4TV President Neil Tiles says, "We're TV14.")

G4TV

"Attack of the Show": With its tagline of "TV's only source for all the stuff you care about," AOTS is a cool little daily dose of pop-culture news. (7 p.m. weekdays)

"Happy Tree Friends": The colorful, cute animation makes HTF seem innocent enough, until -- like what happens with The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy characters -- things get very violent. (Midnight Mondays)

"Icons": Sort of a Biography for the under-25 set, this documentary series' profiles range from graphic artist Shepard Fairey to actors Seth Green and Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Borat). (11 p.m. Sundays)

SpikeTV

"Afro Samurai": This animated series features the voice of Samuel L. Jackson as Afro, a black samurai in feudal Japan. (Begins in January)

"The Kill Pit": Written by James DeMonaco (who penned the remake of the cult hit Assault on Precinct 13) and starring John Leguizamo, this saga, about a group of Iraq War vets who stage a bank heist, promises major action. (Airs in June).

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CLICK ON THESE OTHER HIDDEN GEMS

G4TV is not the only less-than-well-known cable/satellite outfit whose quirky and intriguing programming you might have overlooked. (Note that some of these channels may not be available on your particular cable or satellite system.)

American Life Network: Also pitching itself as "Your baby boomer TV choice," ALN has a schedule chock-full of often forgotten TV shows, such as "Homefront" (starring "Friday Night Lights'" Kyle Chandler), "Combat," "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," "The Gallant Men," "Cheyenne," "The Honeymooners" (color episodes), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and, of course, "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." My pick is the brilliant (and still-not-on-DVD) "I'll Fly Away," an early '90s drama about the civil-rights era, starring Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor (9 p.m. Sundays). www.goodtv.com

BBC America: If you still think the American offshoot of the BBC is all about high tea and high-handedness, guess again. The wonderfully soapy "Footballers Wives" (5 p.m. weekdays) and "Footballers Wives Overtime" (10 p.m. Sundays) chronicle the off-field brawling and back-stabbing among soccer players and the women who love them, and show that Brits take off their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. At the other end of the spectrum, the sober "BBC World News" (6 a.m. daily and 6 p.m. Monday-Friday) often gives a very different and refreshing journalistic perspective compared with its American brethren. www.bbcamerica.com

IFC: The Independent Film Channel is much more than a showplace for indie films, such as "The Tao of Steve" and "Amelie." It's also home to edgy original series like the hit-or-miss but often hilarious "The Business" (think "The Office" set in the movie world; 11:30 p.m. Sundays) and comedienne Laura Kightlinger's acclaimed comedy series about Hollywood, "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman" (11 p.m. Sundays). Both are now in reruns. www.ifc.com

MTV TR3S (MTV Tres): MTV's global expansion continues with this bilingual Latin and English pop channel, offering the stuff you know (Shakira, Justin Timberlake) and some worth discovering (Bacilos, La Oreja de Van Gogh). Similar in concept but generally available only on satellite are MTV Desi (aimed at Indian Americans), MTV K (Korean Americans) and MTVChi (Chinese Americans). www.mtv.com/mtvsites

TV One: Positioning itself as an alternative to BET, this channel targeted to African-American audiences airs a lot of "227" and "Good Times" reruns. But it's also getting more into original programming, such as "Bill Bellamy's Who's Got Jokes," which is billed as a "clean" comedy competition. It debuts at 9 p.m. Oct. 28. www.tv-one.tv

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