Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Video gamers tune to G4

24-hour cable channel offers news, reviews and company

By Gary Gentile
The Associated Press

For years, video game players have hunched in front of flickering TV sets, blasting asteroids, piloting starships and stealing cars.

Now the television set has something else to show them: a fast-growing, 24-hour cable channel brimming with video game news, reviews and profiles of game creators.

Known as G4, the channel relies on a series of edgy, low-budget shows that mix a flip attitude with glimpses of state-of-the-art game graphics.

Targets males 12-34

G4 is the first channel launched from scratch by cable giant Comcast Corp., which believes it fills a hot niche and can deliver profits within five years. It targets males between ages 12 and 34 - a demographic coveted by advertisers of cars, clothes and, of course, video games.

After a year on the air, the channel is available to 11 million people on cable systems around the country - exceeding its first-year goal of 6 million.

While it has attracted some national advertising accounts, including Honda and Butterfinger in addition to video game commercials, G4's challenge will be to build its cable presence to 30 million homes - the minimum level needed to hook many major advertisers.

Philadelphia-based Comcast has budgeted $150 million over five years to get G4 to profitability.

Executives at the nation's largest cable company are banking on the booming popularity of video gaming, which boasts game sales of $10 billion a year and has spawned several magazines. Several titles have migrated from the small screen to the big, inspiring movies such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy.

"Gamers are the most educated media consumers out there," said Victor Lucas, the 35-year-old co-host of G4's game review show, Judgment Day. "TV is the perfect medium to reach players and to tell them what is coming up and to create a forum as well."

With the rise of digital cable, there's lots of room on the dial for more channels.

There were 308 cable channels at the end of 2002; 21 new choices, including the Tennis Channel and a channel devoted to high-definition programming, were added between 2001 and 2002.

For G4 to be a true success, it must develop a hit show that will persuade other cable networks, and especially satellite TV systems, to carry it.

"The key for these networks usually is developing a signature program," said Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer at Kagan World Media. "That's really what puts you on the map, and then you build from that."

Charles Hirschhorn, who founded the network, wasn't afraid that gamers would rather handle a joystick.

"If you're a golfer, who I'm sure likes to go outside and hit golf balls, you'll still go inside and watch the Golf Channel," Hirschhorn said. "If you're a cook, you'll still watch the food channel."

G4 offers a daily news show called Pulse, a review segment and even a show detailing the tricks programmed into games - known as "cheats" - that let players do things such as extend their virtual lives or make bobbleheads of players in a basketball video game.

Online component

The channel has an online component where viewers can chat live and post messages on a bulletin board. There's also a live show whose hosts respond to comments and questions from the Web.

Both features provide viewers with an alternative to the relative isolation of playing most games.

G4 programs rely on graphics from actual games and commentary by hosts who are mostly experienced gamers. However, with its limited resources, G4 is not as high-tech as many of the games it features.

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