Aiming to make tech-talk entertaining

By the mid-1990s, when it seemed everyone had a personal computer, an Internet connection and all the must-have accouterments to go with them, it was only natural that production companies began creating programming to illustrate how these new toys and tools...
December 1, 1998

By the mid-1990s, when it seemed everyone had a personal computer, an Internet connection and all the must-have accouterments to go with them, it was only natural that production companies began creating programming to illustrate how these new toys and tools could, and would, change lives. However, it wasn’t until 1998 that the scattering of half-hour shows on local affiliates and cable networks like USA Today, the Science Fiction Channel and Discovery were joined by ZDTV, a 24-hour U.S. cable and satellite network dedicated entirely to computing and the Internet.

‘Our mission is to be the most entertaining, informative, and reliable source for computer information and news,’ says Greg Drebin, ZDTV’s senior vice president of programming and production.

In 1996, San Francisco-based ZDTV was created to produce The Site, an hour-long Internet and computer-related show for MSNBC. The Site was cancelled in the summer of 1997, leaving ZDTV free to focus on its new network, which launched in May of this year.

Even before The Site first aired, ZDTV was no stranger to computer technology content. In fact, computer technology is the family business. The ZD in ZDTV stands for New York-based Ziff-Davis, one of the largest publishers of computer and Internet news and magazines. Ziff-Davis, which is 70% owned by the Japanese computer software and magazine publisher Softbank, also runs ZDNet, a computer news and information website.

With such web-savvy parents, its no wonder that ZDTV’s programming is matched by the content on its companion website, ‘We’re using our website and channel to create a truly new form of media experience: mass communication on a personal level,’ says Drebin. ‘This means that everyone watching our channel, and simultaneously using our website, will see the same program, but each have a unique experience, as active or passive as they want it to be.’

ZDTV claims that it currently produces more original, daily programming than any cable or broadcast channel. ‘We grow 100% of our own, which is what makes us unique,’ says ZDTV executive producer, Peter Hammersly. ‘When we set out to do this we realized there wasn’t a great deal of syndicated product that made sense. It just isn’t out there, so we had to make our own. We are also able to rely on the resources of Ziff-Davis quite a bit.’

Even though ZDTV is growing their own product, Drebin says the network is open to pitches from indie producers and distributors. ‘If someone has an idea, concept or finished product, I want to hear about it. We’re continually looking for products that will line up to our standards,’ he says.

Choosing not to get specific about terms of potential license fees, Drebin says there are opportunities for people who can supply original, topical, fresh content that is cost-effective in relation to ZDTV’s production capabilities. ‘We’re not adverse to buying outside product,’ he says. ‘It just needs to be of the same quality and efficiency that is our normal ZDTV pattern.’

ZDTV’s standards are not set up as a barrier of entry, he says. ‘They’re necessary for what we are. We’re representing an industry that’s moving at the speed of light. Anything on the shelf is going to be obsolete because the technology is changing so fast. The [standards] are more about quality and timeliness than money.’

When it comes to the pitch, Drebin says the treatment of the content is of utmost importance, stressing the significance of entertainment. ‘Our presentation goal is to focus on the entertainment and production value so that otherwise straightforward information can be presented in a more understanding and unique way,’ he explains.

ZDTV programming, built around a six-hour block, concentrates on four major categories – news and business, help and product information, general entertainment, and PC and console gaming. The challenge, according to Drebin, is to make potentially dry content, like how to install a motherboard or where to look for the best interest rates on-line, into fast, edgy, creative, funny, and visually stimulating packages.

Looking to sell branded blocks of programming, whole series and raw segments to the international market, the network attended MIPCOM for the first time this fall. ‘Our goal is to fully establish ZDTV itself as the world’s leading brand for producing and supplying television programming about computers and the Internet,’ says Tom Grams, head of ZDTV’s worldwide sales. ‘Opportunities we are considering range from provision of the entire ZDTV channel, to supplying branded blocks or strands, to offering individual weekly or daily shows.’

As of October, ZDTV was being viewed in eight million American homes on more than 40 cable operators in more than 120 cities. ZDTV also has a channel on DirectTV, the Hughes Electronics Corporation’s satellite broadcast system, as well as on a cable carrier in the Bahamas.

The bulk of ZDTV’s current line-up includes the hour-long Screen Savers, a spy-spoofed how-to show complete with live chat; Call for Help, an hour-long call-in help show; Internet Tonight, a half-hour, wittily-written and delivered ‘Entertainment Tonight of the Internet’; Silicon Spin, a half-hour computer and technology version of Meet the Press; Page View, a half-hour of author interviews and book discussions underwritten by Barnes and; Money Machine, a half-hour of financial news, stories, and money-saving tips; ZDTV Zip File, a half-hour best-of program hosted by the network’s animated character Tilde; and two live newscasts with live on-the-hour updates throughout the day’s programming.

ZDTV is concentrating on expanding the news and looking to expand its programming into subjects like e-commerce, the business of technology, seniors, and a kids show. Drebin says the network plans to increase its programming by 20% every year, eventually building up to 15 to 18 original hours a day.

In addition, the broadcaster is experimenting with segment ideas which may have the potential to spin off into individual programs. Among them are `Love Links,’ a segment about finding romance on-line airing on Internet Tonight; and `Cyber Crimes,’ a regular news feature.

ZDTV is also very much interested in attracting corporate support. Having a marketing deal with 3Com to feature the company’s Big Pix Camera, ZDTV is currently working on an interactive show using Net Cams.

With the exception of Silicon Spin, Screen Savers, and Call for Help, which are shot live, and Fresh Gear, Game Spot TV (hints and product reviews for gamers) and Computer Shopper, which only run on the weekends, all of ZDTV’s programs are shot to tape, aired during the day and repeated in the evenings and on weekends.

With shows aimed at everyone from first-time users and top-level programmers, to housewives shopping on-line and investors looking for the best rate, ZDTV is attempting to appeal to various user-graphics instead of going after a specific demographic. Of Game Spot TV, for example, Drebin says, ‘although the dominant viewer demographic is probably men aged 18 to 24, ZDTV produces the show to appeal to gamers, no matter what the age, income, education, and sex.’

Adds Hammersly, ‘We’ll do for computing what CNN did for news and MTV did for music.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.