Boob Tube

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

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Boob Tube
No one's watching CNET's high-tech television shows, and for good reason
By Jack Boulware

Sleek yet casual in a sport coat and slacks, Ron Reagan Jr. stands on a riser in a chilly television studio. It is the morning of his 41st birthday. As the crew tweaks the lighting, a producer comes out of the control room. There's a slight problem involving Sofie Formica (her real name), Reagan's perky co-host of the TV.COM program. This morning, she's a bit too perky.

The control room says her nipples are visible through her blouse. An obvious silence from the cameramen and floor crew indicates they hadn't really seen the need to mention this.

When informed, Formica quickly folds her arms across her chest, and shoots the control room a look. An assistant brings her a steaming cup of tea.

Reagan glances around, with a head-bobbing smirk straight from his father, and gestures dramatically to the ceiling. "Can't we get some heat in here?"

Why is the son of a former U.S. president spending his birthday standing in a converted gymnasium at the foot of Coit Tower, fiddling with a paddle ball toy, waiting for his co-host's nipples to recede?

Well. To tape a television program on high-tech with virtually no substance, that will air on cable or a backwater TV channel, probably in some weekend time slot when virtually no one will watch it.

That wasn't the idea back in 1992, when CNET founder Halsey Minor set out to establish a mighty media empire of cable television programming devoted to computers and technology. CNET's concept was to marry television and high-tech, and spawn profits.

The first program, CNET Central, appeared in 1995, followed by the cnet.com Web site, the two new ventures snuggling together in a bed of happy cross-promotion.

Other shows followed: Reagan's TV.COM, Cool Tech (consumer-oriented technology products), The Web (Internet and online services), The New Edge (future technologies), and Tech Reports (90-second tech inserts for local news programs). All programs are taped in the same studio.

Since the launch, CNET's efforts have flourished, making it one of the few Internet companies to turn a profit. CNET's main cash cow is its Web site, which reviews and praises products, directs Web surfers to manufacturers, and apprises readers of the most convenient method to purchase the goods. CNET's common stock is quoted on the NASDAQ market. Last month the company reported a doubling of revenue, and announced a 2-for-1 stock split.

But the television part of the operation has proven downright embarrassing.
Most of the programs air on the Sci-Fi Channel and the USA Network, Saturday and Sunday mornings from 6 to 8 a.m. One airs in the Bay Area on Saturday afternoons. CNET claims a weekly audience of more than 1 million for all the shows combined. Company literature proudly boasts that the shows are available in 7 million U.S. homes, in 40 countries, or to 8 million viewers in 23 countries, depending on which company report you choose to believe.

According to CNET TV publicist Maureen Pelisson, the company has never crunched numbers for viewer demographics. It guesses that the audience -- what there is of one -- consists of males in their 20s and 30s who don't know much about technology but watch television early on Sunday mornings.

CNET has hired toothy hosts to shake the pompons -- veteran Bay Area TV host Richard Hart, local actress Daphne Brogdon, Los Angeles DJ Ryan Seacrest, India-born Hari Sreenivasan, and blue-haired "cyberpunk" Desmond Crisis.

But the cheerleading doesn't seem to be helping.
According to CNET's financial records for the first quarter of 1999, the company's online division had generated about $18 million in total revenues, doubled from the same time last year. The television programming mustered only $1.7 million in total revenues during that quarter, a slight drop from 1998.

Inquiring minds would certainly want to know why CNET keeps producing and distributing programs that make no money.

The answer lies in the company's shareholders' reports. Amid the effervescent bubbling about additions to the online division, and great new profitable deals struck with America Online and PC manufacturers, the company makes a small admission:

"Our television programming may not be successful, which could adversely affect our profitability. ... We may be unable to increase or sustain our revenues if we fail to develop television programming that allows us to attract, retain, and expand a loyal television audience, or if we fail to retain or develop distribution channels for our television programming."

In other words, the television programs do not exist to allow Reagan to visit his favorite San Francisco restaurants. They do not exist to add some professional heft to the resume of Desmond Crisis. They exist to promote and maintain the brand name of CNET. Basically, a CNET show is produced because CNET can then brag that it is the "global leader in tech TV."

According to publicist Pelisson, the television division is funded entirely by the USA Network, which pays CNET a licensing fee for the programming, and then graciously covers all production costs. In return, the USA Network receives shares of CNET stock.

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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