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Revenge of the nerds: TechTV talks back

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The same group of companies known for its grand vision of an Internet-guided “wired world,”-Paul Allen’s Vulcan Ventures-is now riding the wheels of technology in reverse by discovering the old-time religion of local community forums.
Mr. Allen’s cable-programming network, TechTV, which falls under the same Vulcan umbrella as multiple system operator Charter Communications, will take its penchant for delivering technology news with panache on the road later this year when it records episodes of its call-in show “Screen Savers” at the site of local cable affiliates in Seattle and Orlando, Fla.
The Seattle event will be held in mid-October in conjunction with the local AT&T Broadband affiliate, and the Orlando forum will be conducted at the end of October in partnership with the local Time Warner cable affiliate.
Following on the heels of similar local events earlier this year run in tandem with two Texas Time Warner affiliates-in Austin and San Antonio-the upcoming forums will let audience members query “Screen Savers” co-hosts Patrick Norton and Leo Laporte about the benefits of advanced cable services. Those offerings, such as telephony and broadband, are designed to sweeten the traditional diet of cable television programming that MSOs feed routinely to consumers.
Greg Drebin, TechTV’s senior vice president of programming and production, said the local seminars are opportunities for the network to boost its name recognition among workers in technology industry hubs that the network’s advertisers are clamoring to reach.
“I don’t know of any other television network that could do this,” Mr. Drebin declared. “Other networks don’t have the expertise in-house.”
The discussions present a co-branding opportunity for both the cable affiliate and TechTV, Mr. Drebin said. “We bring in [local participants] to discuss things like the future of the Internet so people are in a mind-set to see where technology is going-and then they can order [cable services]. We provide a lot of support to the cable affiliates for their nontraditional business opportunities.”
Missing from the lineup of sites for TechTV’s local seminars is the nation’s most powerful high-tech hub-the San Francisco Bay area, which is home to the network’s corporate headquarters. That’s because no Bay area cable affiliates carry the channel, Mr. Drebin said.
Aside from publicizing the technologies created by others, TechTV has been trying its own hand at high-tech invention. For instance, the channel’s programs periodically feature a “Netcam network” that broadcasts live home videos from viewers who have recorded short films on digital Internet cameras. TechTV’s initial research indicated that viewers respond positively to the interactive programming.
“The ability of viewers to see other viewers lets viewers see that they’re not watching TV alone,” he said. “This is the killer app.”
While talk has been surfacing within the television industry about creating an interface between cable operators’ voice-over-Internet-protocol offerings and cable television programming by inserting a “voice chat” feature into television broadcasts, Mr. Drebin questioned the purpose of such an enhancement, belittling it as less compelling than the Netcam network’s video-centered interactive content. “We see [voice chat in programming] as a regressive technology,” he said.
TechTV also plans to launch a specially enhanced version of its programming for WorldGate interactive TV subscribers, as originally reported by Electronic Media (“TechTV to practice what it preaches,” June 18).