Yes, gamers like to play, but do they also like to watch? That’s the multimillion-dollar question for G4, the nation’s first TV channel devoted to videogames, set to launch in 3 million homes on April 24.
Created by a team of TV execs recruited from Disney, MTV, and E!, G4 is betting a $150 million investment that it can ride the coattails of a very lucrative videogame industry. How lucrative? Last year videogame sales in the U.S. totaled $10.8 billion, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. And up to 60 percent of the U.S. population plays videogames. That’s 145 million players, mostly adults—including our President, who sneaks in regular rounds of computer solitaire.
”Videogames are the fastest growing segment of the entertainment business,” says Charles Hirschhorn, former president of Walt Disney Television and Television Animation, who is the founder and CEO of G4, ”but the least represented on TV.” And the kind of representation Hirschhorn envisions is round-the-clock programming. So how does one fill a 24/7 schedule of shows about the game life? Lara Croft: Unplugged? The Ramen Noodle Cooking Hour?
For its debut to Comcast subscribers around the country (the channel is expecting to reach 5 million by year’s end), G4 offers 13 half-hour shows. Sweat covers sports games, Blister surveys action-adventure titles, and Portal explores online games. Taking cues from MTV, G4 milks its share of lifestyle programming as well. Players is a digital iteration of Cribs, featuring tours of celebrity hardware, while Filter functions like a gamer’s TRL. The network even has its own Carson Daly in Wil Wheaton, the former Star Trek: The Next Generation star who now cohosts the head-to-head game competition Arena.
Still, G4 faces some big hurdles, like winning over a cynical audience. Across the Net, players were dissecting G4 weeks before its launch. ”I don’t give a rat’s ass about what games some celeb is playing,” groused one. ”[It] would be good if I was in a hotel room somewhere far away from my computer and Xbox,” wrote another. He has a point. While launching any cable channel is difficult, says Ross Rubin of Jupiter Research, a technology analysis firm, ”[G4] faces the additional challenge of competing with its coverage area.” That is, how do you get gamers to turn off their consoles and watch TV? For starters, G4 is courting game makers, hoping they will provide content in the same way the music industry supplies MTV with videos. A few big publishers — including Microsoft and Sega — have signed on.
But G4’s greatest asset is the velocity of the gaming industry itself: Between the boom of home consoles and the anticipated $4 billion market for cell-phone games, it could become the world’s biggest entertainment business in the next decade. If only a small percentage of players tune in, G4 could be the next century’s MTV. Short of that, it could soon face those two words dreaded by all players: Game over.