Game Over for G4’s Hirschhorn

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Frustrated with G4’s lagging viewership and video game brand, Comcast has replaced founder and CEO Charles Hirschhorn with former DirecTV Executive VP of Marketing Neil Tiles as part of an overall plan to revamp the direction of the network, sources said.

Senior VP of Distribution and Advertising Sales Dale Hopkins has been promoted to chief operating officer, reporting to Mr. Tiles.

Though details are still sketchy, the new brand will likely be a young-male lifestyle channel with a more subtle emphasis on video games.

Mr. Hirschhorn came to a mutual decision that he would leave after discussions with Jeff Shell, who became Comcast’s programming czar last February. Mr. Tiles was a marketing executive at Fox Sports during Mr. Shell’s 2000-02 tenure as CEO of Fox Cable Networks Group.

Mr. Hirschhorn and Mr. Tiles could not be reached for comment. Comcast and G4 did not return calls requesting comment.

Mr. Hirschhorn, the former president of Walt Disney Television, was the driving force behind G4 since its launch in 2002 and an advocate for the seemingly untapped potential of video game-related programming. Early on, Mr. Hirschhorn compared G4 to Comcast’s Golf Channel, saying that just as golfers are drawn to golf programming, gamers would be drawn to gamer programming.

The reality was more complicated, however, with fickle young viewers posting online that G4 exuded corporate pandering rather than an authentic feel. In a move to boost distribution, Comcast acquired older-skewing competitor TechTV in 2004 for $300 million, adding to its already hefty initial G4 investment of $150 million.

TechTV’s 44 million subscribers were combined with G4’s 15 million for a hybrid channel that was titled G4techTV for several months, then switched to G4 in February.

Comcast hoped the increased exposure would lead audiences to embrace G4’s original programming, but the shows acquired from TechTV, such as “X-Play,” “Screen Savers” and “Anime Unleashed,” became the channel’s most popular programs. Efforts by G4 to improve TechTV’s shows with hipper hosts and formats that were more in line with G4’s teenage demographic target resulted in angry backlashes from older TechTV fans online and a revolving door of employee turnover.

“It seems like most people are frustrated by [Mr. Hirschhorn],” said a source familiar with the situation. “He’s a brilliant studio guy, but the whole transition to television maybe wasn’t a good move. His way of doing things is either his way or, well, there’s no other way.”

Today the network is in 53 million homes, yet its ratings have been very modest, averaging 49,000 prime-time viewers in the second quarter, according to Nielsen Media Research. Those figures are essentially unchanged from recent quarters. About 80 percent of those viewers, however, are male, with the highest concentration of teens of any cable network.

Cable consultant Ray Solley credits Mr. Hirschhorn for launching a network that others had failed to get off the ground.

“I can’t tell you the number of shows people have pitched around over the last half-dozen years about video gaming,” Mr. Solley said. “I give Hirschhorn credit for doing something that everybody had been trying to do, actually got it on the air, and now they’ve reached that critical-growth moment.”

As for Mr. Hirschhorn’s departure, Mr. Solley added, “Most businesses go through this same process-from having a creator to having a maintainer. I think G4 is going to try to offer shows that appeal to the lifestyle of their current audience, and get some older kids and younger parents as well.”

A shift toward more general entertainment would put G4 in a position of facing competition from such similarly targeted services as Spike TV, MTV and even FX, TBS, TNT and USA Network. And the network would have to grapple with all the branding challenges those networks face, such as differentiating themselves while also maintaining a broad appeal, Mr. Solley said.

To that end, three weeks ago the network took a step to reduce its dependence on video game-related shows by launching the late-night Barbed Wire Biscuit block to compete against Cartoon Network’s popular Adult Swim. Most of the strip’s content is not about video games. Ratings information is not yet available for Barbed Wire Biscuit.

“When the network first began the programming, it was 100 percent video game-centric with game news, previews, reviews-any way you can wrap video game content into a show,” Peter Green, senior VP of programming and production at G4, said last month. “We’ll always have games as our core, but since we’re programming for 12- to 34-year-old males, I believe they have other interests-technology, gadgets, girls. We’re trying to run the gambit and broaden out.”

While working at Walt Disney Television, Mr. Hirschhorn was also executive VP of production for Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, where he oversaw the development of films such as “The Joy Luck Club” and “Quiz Show.” He also was a credited producer on films such as “Bull Durham” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”