Characters from "Game Over"
UPN
The game may be over for the CGI characters of UPN's short-lived "Game Over" series, but don't expect TV execs to give up on video game-themed programming.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 4/30/2004 5:15:26 PM ET 2004-04-30T21:15:26

Is television dead for video gamers? For many, choosing between playing a couple hours of "Splinter Cell" vs. watching a reality show about B-grade beauty queens swallowing bugs is a no-brainer.

A Nielsen report late last year citing an 8 percent decline in primetime viewing among men ages 18 to 34 seemed to imply some sort of trend. And last month a Sony press release applied the proper spin to the data: "When people go looking for their favorite entertainment some are turning to online gaming with PlayStation 2 instead of tuning into broadcast television."

No matter the truth behind the data –- fuzzy Nielsen metrics, the sudden popularity of book clubs for boys –- video gaming’s popularity represents a challenge to television and not just in eyeballs. That lost demographic represents millions in lost ad revenue.

Over the years a couple networks have attempted to plug into the video game money train with programming for and about game players. But no one as of yet has solved the main challenge: Why would anyone want to view a game instead of playing one?

Game TV gets a bit bigger
Since its launch two years ago, the Comcast-owned G4 network has represented the most ambitious attempt to jump on the video gaming bandwagon. Slickly produced and hosted by hip, young things whose look reads more "Ibiza nightclub" than "downstairs basement," the tone of G4 is clear: Gaming is not just a hobby, it's a way of life.

"The more lifestyle you make it, the more you watch," said Debra Green, chief operating officer.

G4 has been banking on that type of gamer lifestyle programming, supplementing news and reviews with shows like "Players," where the rich and famous talk of their joystick prowess in this kind of "Aw shucks, I may be rich, but I play" delivery. 

"There’s a missing niche on TV today," said Green. "People who play golf, love watching golf on TV. People into style, like watching style TV.”

So, logic would suggest, people who play games want to watch television about people playing games. As of yet, this hasn't been completely proven. G4 only reaches 15 million homes. But the promise of tapping into the lucrative gaming demographic, a group that spent more than $7 billion in game hardware and software last year, was enough to convince G4 owner Comcast to announce its intent to purchase the larger technology channel TechTV.

When the deal concludes, G4 will nearly triple its reach to 43 million households.

Some don't buy the formula of broadcasting game-related content to gamers.

"Television Week" reporter James Hibberd has studied the (mostly) troubled history of video game-inspired television and believes that linking its potential to past success in sports and entertainment television is wrong.

"There are plenty of shows about movies and celebrities," he said, "but no matter the content, whether you're watching a movie or a show about a movie it's still the same passive experience."

Video games present a different challenge, said Hibberd. "Watching people play video games is as exciting as watching someone read."

Games are interactive, meaning someone with video games on the mind may be more inclined to play than watch. A golf fan watching the Masters on TV would have to go through a number of tasks -- pack the trunk, call up the buddies, drive to the course -- to make the transition from viewer to player. For video gamers, the switch is just a button click away. 

Plus, there is the addictive quality of gaming. "When I get sucked into a game," said IDC game analyst and player Schelley Olhava, "I will most definitely sacrifice TV time."

Don't touch that dial!
Game television promoters say it's too early to change the channel. 

"Critics forget gamers are older than twelve," said Adam Sessler, co-host of TechTV's popular game review and news show, "X-Play."  "There is room for better business coverage or more intelligent looks at people behind the games."

Several larger networks have taken this type of approach recently, skirting traditional video game reviews and player profiles for programming that's more tangential in approach. 

Last year, the Discovery Channel presented a short series, "The X Factor: Inside Microsoft's Xbox," which offered a behind-the-scenes look at game developers in action. SpikeTV, the self-described network for men, took a different tact with the Video Game Awards, an event more memorable for its porn star presenter than its list of winners. The channel is planning a second televised awards bacchanalia next December.

And then there was UPN's "Game Over." A CGI-animated sitcom "starring" a nuclear family of fictional video game characters, this esoteric take on gaming culture didn't last long. Amid dismal ratings, UPN yanked the show off the air earlier this month.

"X-Play," the TechTV program most likely to be incorporated into G4 programming post-merger, is also defiantly different. There are enough inside jokes to please the hardcore gamers, but listen closely enough and you may detect an almost mocking tone. In one feature piece about a Bay Area anime conference, for example, participants were almost openly mocked for dressing up like Japanese cartoons.

"A lot of people have reticence to enjoy gaming because of the image that hard-core gamers perpetuate," said Sessler. "We can be sarcastic. We may make fun of the game, fun of the people." He added with a laugh, "And we get wonderful mail from viewers that we share.”

The future?
Whether the future of game-centered television rests with "X-Play" irony or the lifestyle approach of G4 or something from left field like UPN's "Game Over" remains to be seen. But the belief among producers and advertisers alike is that the audience is out there.

"The great thing about gaming is that you can get sports or action or horror or history,” said Scott Rubin, co-host of the G4 program "G4TV.com." “Television programming can grow to reflect that. We’re open and can tap into anything,"

"There's plenty of room for growth. We just need the management at television stations to roll over and the let new in," said Sessler.

Perhaps the new generation has already taken over. Hibberd pointed out that there is one game that's become hot television on everything from the Travel Channel to Bravo and ESPN. Tens of thousands tune in to watch other people play each week. There are no reviews, no features, no award shows or documentaries. Heck, there's rarely even a player under 25.  The game? Poker.

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