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It takes a lot of money to make a cable channel fly. Others have tried to pilot computer-exclusive cable programming, only to crash and burn after a year or less on the air. So what makes ZDTV think it knows how to fly? For one thing, the "ZD" in ZDTV stand for Ziff-Davis, the publishing giant with big ambitions and deep pockets.
With the usual hoopla, ZDTV cranked up in May of this year ('98), offering its services to cable programmers via its C-band satellite location on Satcom C4 (channel 12), where it continues to transmit its in-the-clear signal. However, most cable companies have limited channel capability and it might be a while before this channel is offered in your area. Meanwhile, ZDTV has secured channels aboard DirecTV (channel 273), and just recently, the DISH network (channel 191). Can Primestar be far behind?
Leo Laporte, one of ZDTV's bright spots.
While other computer channels couldn't find enough advertisers to fill the avails each hour, ZDTV has had no such trouble. The hours are peppered with snappy ads hawking Computer Shopper, Family PC, PC Computing and many other print titles, all of which just happen to be cornerstones of the Ziff-Davis empire.
In fact, a closer look at many of the expert guests on a number of the regular shows reveals the editors and writers for those very same magazines. ZDTV: It's like a 24/7 infomercial for Ziff-Davis. Adding to this incestuous commercial onslaught is Digital Avenue, a half-hour interview show which looks and feels like real content until you look more carefully (and quickly) and see a tiny disclaimer which appears briefly on-screen explaining that the program is, in fact, a paid announcement.
Another dubious achievement was to team up with industry giant 3Com to sprinkle 10,000 Bigpicture video phones throughout the initial viewership via daily contest drawings. Winners are given the vidphones and invited to drop in and chat on the channel's shows. I'm sure the idea seemed terrific originally and "interactive" at the time, but the result is less than spectacular. The poor resolution and herky-jerky imagery of the misnamed "Bigpicture" video phones is not something 3Com should be proud of. It also demonstrates graphically why video phones, available for better than 10 years, have always flopped.
Other questionable offerings on ZDTV include a woman who promotes an on-line romance service and the so-called "Surf Guru," an apparent imbecile wearing a guard's uniform who's a horrifying mutation of Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts and Gilligan...minus the humor. Luckily, these are short segments.
Craig Miller: Too Much Coffee Man? You be the judge.
There are, however, some programming bright spots. Page View, hosted by Craig Miller, who sports the obligatory multimedia gulch goatee, is one. Apparently hyped up on too much Starbucks coffee, Miller whisks the viewer through what might otherwise be another boring chat show about (gasp!) books. With a deftness worthy of a waiter navigating a large tray through a crowded restaurant, Miller delivers the goods. Prodding his guests with a note of urgency in his voice, he prompts quick responses and politely cuts into the sometimes off-track ramblings of slower-talking guests. The books Miller reviews are well-chosen and not likely to be found on other shows of this type. His interviews find me wanting to log onto Barnes & Noble to order the title. Why B & N? Because they sponsor the show, of course!
Another bright star in ZDTV's often dim constellation is Leo Laporte, the clean-shaven, self-appointed "old man" of the channel. Laporte hosts Call for Help, a call-in show aimed at anyone who's ever had a problem with a computer. As you might imagine, there's no shortage of callers and Laporte handles each one with a wonderful sense of humor and hands-on enthusiasm. He knows his stuff, too; whether it's helping someone with a software installation problem or explaining how host servers work. He also isn't hamstrung by his sponsors. I've seen him dog a product that minutes later is advertised during a commercial break. His honesty, helpfulness and irreverent humor are a welcome salve to all of the viewers he rescues each day. Laporte also co-hosts The Screen Savers, a laid back show of tech talk, interviews with Internet and computer luminaries and viewer participation. His is the widest possible range of audience, from kids to pheezers, newbies to seasoned netheads, and he treats them all with respect.
Viewers who get their 1's and 0's intravenously might also appreciate Internet Tonight, Money Machine and a couple of other programs that train a more critical eye on the day-to-day world of the Internet, computers, gaming and money. And if you miss anything, please stand by. As other cable channels have found, there's not nearly enough material to keep the action going 'round the clock. As a result, ZDTV repeats its entire line-up several times each day.
Will ZDTV fly? Cable channels are expensive, even ones with relatively low production costs like ZDTV. Dozens of would-be channels, backed by big bucks, have disappeared without a trace over the years. Still, while seemingly countless sports, food, shopping and religious channels multiply -- despite its obvious shortcomings -- there ought to be room for at least *one* computer channel.
- Ken Reitz [10/5/98]
[Editor's Note: If you don't get ZDTV in your area and would like to, you can lobby your provider via an email form on ZDTV's website.]