Revisiting Tech TV, a bubble later

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Part of what we're doing here at Fusion's Silicon Valley bureau – which consists, at the moment, of three of us on active duty, with several more slated to start in the next few weeks – is building a space for killer technology coverage, which will soon be relaunched and filled with ambitious, distinctive kinds of storytelling and reporting, supplemented by some crazy-fun live events. The other part – and the part that intimidates me more, if I'm being honest – is creating a television show about technology and the future.

For the past week or so, I've been digging through the archives of late-1990s tech TV shows for inspiration and ideas. For dot-com-era nostalgics, there's a lot to love. (So many Palm Pilots and Hawaiian shirts!) But the wildest thing, to me, is remembering that there was once an entire channel devoted to this kind of programming.

It was called ZDTV, and it was born on May 11, 1998, on premium cable packages in fifteen states. Named after its owner, Ziff-Davis, which was also the publisher of titles like PC Magazine and MacWEEK, the channel was dedicated to 24/7 coverage of the blossoming tech industry and its products. ("For those who cannot spend too much time in front of the computer screen, there is ZDTV, all computers all the time," snarked the Times.) There was a lot going on in tech in 1998 – Microsoft's antitrust trial, AOL's acquisition of Netscape, the debut of the original iMac. And ZDTV – which changed its name to TechTV two years later, and then to G4techTV after a controversial 2004 merger with Comcast's G4 network, and then, finally, to simply G4 – was going to cover it all.

The original 1998 ZDTV lineup was, in retrospect, a real coup. It wouldn't be easy to fill a 24-hour news cycle with tech-focused content even today, but in 1998 – when only 42% of American homes had a computer, and only 26% had Internet access – it must have been nearly impossible to find enough to say about the new digital world. ("It's hard to imagine 24 hours of strong computer-centric information," one naysaying analyst was quoted as saying at the time.) Watching old ZDTV clips, you get the sense that the show-makers knew this, too – that, partly, they knew that their job was to convince viewers that technology deserved a cable network of its own, and that such a network could thrive under their care. They were evangelists for the tech-driven future, not simply broadcasters of it.


Here is a 1999 episode of the network's flagship nightly news show, "Internet Tonight," a half-hour grab-bag of the day's web happenings. A Beanie Baby scam artist. A newspaper in Utah that was shutting down its print operation and going web-only. A bizarre, possibly intoxicant-aided extended monologue about Magic 8-Balls (at 15:30) by a character called the "Surf Guru." Very little of this was national news, per se, but that's because the Internet wasn't really a nation yet. It was a mid-sized city, and ZDTV was its public-access show.

Here's a 1999 episode of "Screen Savers," a call-in show focused on helpful hacks to make your technology work better. (It's "Car Talk" for computers, basically.) As you can see, the show isn't really aimed at laymen – one segment uses Russian nesting dolls to explain network packet configuration, and hosts Leo Laporte and Kate Botello treat their viewers as tech-world insiders who want to hone their skills, rather than novices coming to computers for the first time.

The clubby, esoteric nature of the early ZDTV/TechTV line-up is part of what made it so charming to its core audience of hobbyists, gamers, and IT professionals. But it wasn't exactly inviting to the masses. There were shows and segments oriented toward neophytes, sure, but they always seemed like reluctant concessions. The real audience was the hardcore one. You can imagine a tech-curious lawyer or schoolteacher stumbling across ZDTV while surfing channels, watching a host explain the intricacies of RAM installation, and thinking, yep, I'm outta here.

As ZDTV grew up, several things changed. In the summer of 2000 – just months before the dot-com bubble went up in a sockpuppet pyre – the network was acquired by CNET, which renamed it TechTV and announced that the network would open up beyond its geek-world roots. On the new TechTV, the mass market was the target. Out went the quirky humor segments and insider jargon, in went slickly-produced shows about gadgets, games, and stocks hosted by people in business attire. Here's the TechTV review of the original 2001 iPod:

The aesthetic shift in TechTV was accompanied by a change in implied perspective. Once the insider's tech network, TechTV now saw its job as explaining technology to outsiders. (Note the female host's faux-naive line of questioning in the iPod review: "I want to back you up. Beep, beep! Here's the deal. What is the iPod?") In its new mass orientation, TechTV began to look less like its own fringe community, and more like the cable news we see today.


The changes didn't sit well with the TechTV diehards, who wanted the network to remain the house organ of Techville. One such disappointed fan, venting in a more recent YouTube confessional, lamented that the network had sold its soul in order to reach for higher ratings. "No more video games, no more technology, no more anime, nothing from their roots," he kvetched. "It's all gone."

Of course, it didn't matter for TechTV, which was probably doomed no matter which tack it took. The dot-com bust made Americans fearful of technology and scornful of its makers, and then, when tech returned, it was so huge that everyone was covering it, which eliminated the need for a standalone network. (To put it another way: a best-of-the-web show like "Internet Tonight" would be redundant today, because now every nightly news show is "Internet Tonight.") TechTV survived a bloody merger with G4, then dragged along for the next decade as a gaming-focused channel. It's now being cancelled, after years of meager ratings and disappointing programming.


What's remarkable, though, is how much of the TechTV approach is still hanging around. These days, when major TV networks report about technology, they still often lean on the 2001-era TechTV tropes – lots of clichés about "cybercrime" and "hackers," references to Skynet and HAL 9000, a kind of campy futurism that assumes that the teleological end of technology is a lifestyle akin to "The Jetsons." Technology has subsumed every part of our lives, but much of the TV world still treats it as a far-out realm that is exotic, vaguely threatening, and comprehensible only by those in the know. It's as if we were reporting on modern domestic life by playing clips of "All in the Family."

That doesn't need to happen, though. Technological concepts are more accessible than ever before, and Silicon Valley has moved from the fringes of mainstream culture to somewhere close to the center of it. We might be intimidated by some activities and companies within the tech industry, but technology itself no longer intimidates most of us in the way it did. The need for patient hand-holding and careful step-by-step explanation is gone, and we now like discovering new technology on our own. (When's the last time you read a user's manual?) A new show, then, could show us the ways technology is playing out in the world while trusting us to make sense of those changes ourselves.


What I'm wondering, as I look back at the 1990s clips, is whether it's possible to combine the best parts of those early ZDTV shows – the assumption of a savvy viewer, the relative lack of sci-fi clichés, the idea that technology was supposed to be used by us (rather than happening to us) – with something that reflects the bigger, more mainstream place technology has in today's world. I'm not sure what the answer is. But I'm pretty certain that our show will gesture to these ideas in some form. I can make one promise, though: zero Hawaiian shirts.

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