Boob Tube

No one's watching CNET's high-tech television shows, and for good reason

CNET knows it needs to do something to remain a player in this hepcat high-tech world. After its cross-town rival, Ziff-Davis, launched a 24-hour network of programs about technology, CNET announced it was signing a deal with MSNBC, to produce yet another program about technology and the Internet.

But for the moment, CNET is just trying to keep its brand alive, producing programs nobody has ever heard of, aired at times when few are watching. And its best-known cheerleader, Reagan, keeps flying down from Seattle twice a month. Much like his father, he has become a familiar, trustworthy face who sells America back to itself.

TV.COM is neither news nor show business. It's more a bastard stepchild of Entertainment Tonight and Silicon Valley. Handy-dandy slogans proclaim it to be "Your front-row seat for the future," a show where "television meets the Internet." And like ET, its content is just as frivolous and devoid of criticism.

This would explain the leisurely pace of a TV.COM taping. Why the studio crew wolfed bagels as they hung lights, why Formica cooed over someone's baby pictures, and why Reagan was two hours late to get into makeup.

For Reagan, who's been on-camera talent everywhere from Good Morning America to E! and the BBC, this is just another job. He flies in every other Thursday night, stays at CNET's corporate condo, walks across the street to the studio, tapes all day Friday, then flies back home to Seattle. He knows what it's really about.

"It's about selling stuff," he says. "The TV is going to marry the computer. [Cable TVmogul] John Malone talks about impulse behavior in the viewer." He smiles, knowing his skepticism is not just charming, but highly marketable.

"I've been telling this story for two years," he confides. "There is a refrigerator that will tell you how much milk is left in the carton. What are we, idiots?"

TV.COM visits trade shows for the latest in soon-to-be-obsolete technology. A correspondent will interview the founder of the online ISP server devoted to the rock band Kiss. Another will tell you which video games are cool, or how to file taxes online. A camera crew will follow around a San Francisco geek who has installed a PalmPilot on the dashboard of his car, to tell him how fast he's driving. Polls ask viewers to send in answers to questions like, "How much did you pay for your computer?" Advertisers promote virtual hairstyles, and CNET-related products.

"It's interesting, the difference in what [the computer] was intended to be. You never have to leave home -- who really wants to live like that? This is just one more tool," Reagan says.

The nipple problem resolved, taping begins. Reagan and Formica ad-lib filler material, chuckling their way around the blatant advertorial copy. Quick editing and snappy generic music make the high-tech gizmos and gadgets seem snazzy and essential, but the overall effect is like biting into a styrofoam peanut.

After the hosts do a take, welcoming viewers to the show, Formica turns and exclaims, "Sometimes he'll say, 'Hi, I'm Sofie Formica!' We have to stop and start all over!"

"That's me," says Reagan.
"We just read for a living," she says.
"But we do it so well," answers Reagan. "Some people can't.

Several points mentioned in "Boob Tube," a Bay View published June 2, require correction or clarification.

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