Spike TV, Game Show Network and other programmers-particularly in cable-are fast-tracking new video game-related programming in attempts to capture the coveted young, affluent male demo that typically plays games at home.
Spike has at least four new gamer-related shows in development, in addition to its upcoming two-hour Video Game Awards special. The Game Show Network will try cracking the market with a two-hour weekly block of gamer programming this fall. And MTV, which recently ran a documentary on gamers, is looking to develop additional game-centric content as well.
The reason to target gamers is clear: There are 145 million gamers in the United States. Their average age is 28 and they skew male. Gamers spent $11.7 billion on games and consoles in 2002-more than moviegoers spent at the box office.
Such demographics get advertisers salivating. G4, in existence for only 16 months, has already signed the likes of Best Buy, Honda, Mountain Dew and several movie studios. In addition to being young and male, the game audience is attractive, programmers said, because you don’t need to score high ratings with them to score high ad rates.
“There’s so much money in the gaming industry,” Game Show Network President Rich Cronin said. “Even with smaller household ratings, as long as you’re getting the gamers, you have a good platform because of the whole gamer image. Soft-drink companies and automotive companies are willing to take a chance with you. Now everybody wants the breakthrough show on video games.”
Many networks are only now understanding that gamers are their prime demographic, said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, a trade organization representing the gaming industry.
“If they don’t understand the need to develop programming for them, then they may be missing out,” he said.
What’s unclear about targeting gamers is how programmers can pry the enthusiasts away from their games long enough to watch shows about games.
It’s a problem that G4-a Comcast-owned upstart providing nonstop video game-related programming-and the other nets are eager to solve. A prime example of programmers’ struggle to turn gamers’ attention to television was evident two weeks ago at cable network G4’s first annual G-Phoria video game awards show. Hundreds of software developers, fans, network executives and media crammed into a lavishly decked-out Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood to discuss their favorite subject. While free drinks flowed, attendees traded industry gossip and played a dozen popular titles at complimentary kiosks throughout the theater.
What attendees didn’t do, however, was pay quite as much attention to the actual live G-Phoria awards show that was transpiring on stage for G4’s cameras.
So what is the breakthrough show about video games? After all, it has been nearly 30 years since Pong first invaded suburban homes, and nobody has yet managed to develop a must-see show about video games. Remember “Dave and Steve’s Video Game Explosion”? Neither does anyone else.
Though an advocate for extending gamer culture to television, Mr. Lowenstein admitted the task facing programmers is “not easy.”
“I do not underestimate the challenge of developing creative and appealing game-specific programming,” he said. “We don’t have lots of star talent yet. Another thing that’s challenging is if you, for example, watch a music video rather than listen to music, that’s an entertainment experience in and of itself. The entertainment of a game is interactivity and, at least at this point, you can’t replicate that on passive television.”
Mr. Cronin is well aware of such challenges. At one point, GSN attempted to develop a program on which contestants were quizzed about video games. The show tested poorly and was shelved. So for GSN’s upcoming Thursday afternoon gamer programming block, the network purchased two established shows from the United Kingdom: “Game Sauce” and “Gamer TV.” (Mr. Cronin acquired the rights, for an undisclosed sum when G4 let its ownership lapse, an acquisition both networks downplay in significance.)
Now GSN is in discussions with established gamer magazines and Web sites, looking for opportunities for cross-promotion.
“It is inherently dull to watch people playing video games,” Mr. Cronin said. “So I think you have to look at what TV does best. TV can really present the whole lifestyle of the gamers; it’s not just about game hints and cheats. Our block is about game news and lifestyle. They’re like the `ET’ and `Access Hollywood’ of video games.”
“The big question,” he added, “is whether gamers want to watch shows about video games.”
Try telling that to G4.
The MTV of Gaming?
Charles Hirschhorn, president of G4 and former president of Walt Disney TV, bristles at the suggestion that game-specific programming is unproven in the marketplace.
“I think it’s a nonissue,” Mr. Hirschhorn said. “That sort of logic would make you want to question why a golfer wants to watch the Golf Channel. Or why a cook wants to watch the Food Network. It’s obviously been the history of cable; there’s hundreds of networks beyond general entertainment. I guess you would question, 23 years ago, whether people would want to watch video music programming.”
Comparisons to MTV are common from G4 advocates. Their marketing literature also notes that the network aspires to be to video games what ESPN is to sports and what E! is to entertainment. G4’s executive staff includes E! vets Debra Green and Dale Hopkins and MTV alum Vinnie Longobardo.
With the backing of the most powerful cable operator, the network’s profile is rising fast. Comcast budgeted $150 million over five years to bring G4 to profitability by targeting male gamers ages 12 to 34. Since launching in April 2002, the net has grown to 11 million subscribers. In May it inked a two-year deal with Warner Bros. Pictures to scout potential theatrical projects from the gamer community.
All this lends itself to Mr. Hirschhorn’s optimistic “If you program it, they will come” stance. “[Gaming is] a bull’s-eye with this demographic,” he said. “Gaming is not only a huge interest, it’s a huge video interest. And television is an inherently video experience.”
Yet none of the niche network models G4 said it is trying to emulate quite apply to the network. Televised sports were popular long before ESPN and the Golf Channel. MTV added a revolutionary visual component to popular music. E! is not really about movies or television, but the never-fail topic of celebrities.
Gaming is, however, an increasingly popular pastime that people enjoy instead of watching television and-unlike sports-it is as accessible to users as television.
“When you’re a gamer, you’re trying to get to the end of the game. You’re very destination-driven,” said Kevin Kay, Spike TV’s executive VP of programming and production. “When you’re watching a TV show, your goal is to be entertained. [G4] faces an uphill battle.”
Greg Kasavin, executive editor of GameSpot, a top-rated Internet gaming magazine, concurred.
“Games are time-consuming, personal and involving,” he said “Television is relatively detached and casual. Reconciling these things clearly isn’t easy. [And] I strongly believe most everyone who considers him or herself a gamer gains a majority of his or her information about games from the Internet.”
The key to wrangling gamers from their joysticks to their remotes may be determining what television can give gamers that they can’t find anywhere else-or that they can’t find quicker on the Internet.
Thus far, G4’s programming slate has shows dedicated to gaming competitions, product reviews, gaming news and player lifestyles. Sources agree the most obvious advantage for cablers is television’s ability to preview upcoming games, of which Mr. Hirschhorn is well aware.
“Nothing shows a game like television-that’s what the game looks like,” Mr. Hirschhorn said. “It doesn’t look like a printed photo or a downloaded version of the game.”
. Kasavin agreed, but added: “I don’t think G4 has yet gained a strong foothold in this crowd. That is, I don’t hear much talk about G4 one way or another.”
Last December there was some talk of G4 in the gamer community, but not the kind of talk the network wanted.
Former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star Wil Wheaton was hired as host of the G4 competition program “Arena,” but he quit and claimed the show was fixed.
“There is a culture of dishonesty and hubris at G4 that would make an ambulance-chasing lawyer cringe, and I couldn’t be part of it,” Mr. Wheaton wrote in an online journal.
Though the incident did not reach the mainstream press, it did damage G4’s image among hardcore online gamers, who frequently mock G4 on message boards.
Mr. Hirschhorn said the matter was a misunderstanding and has since been resolved.
“Wil and the producer didn’t get along,” Mr. Hirschhorn said. “It’s an interesting media world where you can take those personal issues and put them online, but there was no unethical behavior by either party.”
Besides, G4 is shooting for all sorts of gaming enthusiasts, not just the ones who read tidbits of gaming gossip on the Internet. There’s an exploding number of casual players, for instance, who enjoy a wide number of activities aside from gaming and who don’t have the inclination to hunt for game previews to download.
“It’s a tremendously viable business,” Mr. Hirschhorn said. “And I don’t know of a game magazine or Web site that could host an event like G-Phoria.”
True. But another network could.
Running With the Big Dog
Last May, Spike TV announced it would launch the “Video Game Awards,” a two-hour program to air later this year. According to Mr. Kay, the awards will be modeled after MTV’s popular movie and video award shows, with celebrity guests and amusing shorts created through “repurposed” footage from games (a la “MTV Movie Awards” sketches where the host is comically inserted into scenes from hit films).
Mr. Kay listed the usual reasons for producing the show-the choice gaming demographics, the eager advertisers-and then added, “And there’s nothing else like this out there. People keep asking us why hasn’t anybody done this kind of show before.”
But didn’t G4 run its awards show just last week?
“G4 is G4,” Mr. Kay shot back, “but we’re in 86 million homes.”
“Besides,” Mr. Kay said, “we have a different idea. The creative goal is to have this event that celebrates the industry but is also entertaining.”
To that end, Mr. Kay told TelevisionWeek that the award show may be only the beginning of gamer content for Spike TV. The network has four to five gamer-related programs in development and, like G4 and GSN, has hired several consultants from the gaming industry.
Still, Mr. Kay admitted that programming the awards has been tough. “It’s a big challenge to figure out how to put video games on television, and it’s something we’ve thought a lot about,” Mr. Kay said. “Right now we’re just trying to get a two-hour block.”
Another big dog that could easily run in the video game race is ESPN.
The monolithic sports net already has its brand on popular console game titles such as “ESPN NBA 2 Night” and “ESPN NFL PrimeTime 2002.” The ESPN Web site has a video game review section, and the net has dipped a toe into gamer coverage during its annual Winter X Games. A representative for ESPN declined to comment on the network’s programming plans.
For G4’s part, Mr. Hirschhorn said he isn’t bothered by the prospect of competition.
“I’m thrilled because it just validates our programming,” he said. “Clearly advertisers have been looking for video gamers.”
Still, will gamers want to watch television shows about video games?
Surprisingly, the answer from cable and gaming insiders was unanimously yes.
Being Good TV
“There’s definitely room for certain organizations to establish a foothold in the coming years as the pre-eminent source of information on the subject,” GameSpot’s Mr. Kasavin said. “If there’s an archaic medium still covering games, it’s print. There you can’t see a game in motion at all.”
Added Mr. Lowenstein, the gaming trade association president: “I think it’s realistic to believe with creative minds that you can develop a block of programming that will be very appealing to that audience. The reason the game audience is becoming so relevant is because it’s becoming broader. So it’s plausible if you create compelling material for them they’ll watch it.”
And wholeheartedly agreed G4’s Mr. Hirschhorn: “It has nothing to do with video game programming. It has to do with any network programming. A network’s identity is based on programming. `Queer Eye’ made Bravo. `South Park’ made Comedy Central. You need that sort of signature programming to catch on, that’s going to be the horse that pulls the cart.”
The breakthrough idea, however, remains to be discovered.
G4 is looking for its signature show. GSN, Mr. Cronin noted, hopes to tap into the elusive competitive quality that links traditional game shows and video gaming. Spike TV hopes to make a splash with its awards show. Other nets are content to wait and see.
Having struggled for years to gain the respect and attention from gamers, Mr. Kasavin offered some free advice to programmers.
“I would abandon the idea of trying to compete directly against print and online media about games,” he said. “What television has the potential to do is to show many of the increasing number of interesting personalities and celebrity sponsors for games, to go behind the scenes with popular games. … Just as Web sites have moved quite far away from emulating print publications with their coverage, television about gaming needs to concentrate-above all else-on being good TV.”