Coming to a TV near you

Squeezed in between more than three new music channels and first-run episodes of Friends, the Canadian fall 2001 TV season will begin next week with a channel devoted exclusively to ’round-the-clock technology coverage.

TechTV, a joint venture between Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Communications, will debut on Sept. 7 as a category 1 digital channel. Formerly ZDTV, the channel was first launched in the United States three years ago by American technology publisher Ziff-Davis Inc. A brand change came in August 2000 after Allen’s Vulcan Ventures bought out the company in a deal worth approximately US$320 million. In the U.S., TechTV enjoys a subscription base of 25 million homes.

According to Alison Clayton, general manager of TechTV, the brand change happened while ZDTV was already working with Rogers and Shaw to bring the proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“We knew that when the CRTC was looking for an opportunity to license new programming services, this was a natural for Canada,” she said. “Not only are Canadians incredibly technically-savvy, there’s nothing like it. There might be the occasional show scattered across the schedules, but there was no 24/7 technology channel.”

For TechTV’s first year of operation here, the CRTC has suggested that 25 per cent of the programming be Canadian. That percentage is expected to grow to 35 per cent next year and 50 per cent by 2006. This will include Dave Chalk’s Computer Show, Clayton said. “He’s got a fabulous style that really interacts well with the rest of the programming on TechTV,” she said, adding that the deal includes Chalk’s back episodes as well as some new ones. “Once we get up and running, we’re going to be looking into proposals, and I can tell you we won’t have to look very far.”

Some Canadian content may be integrated into TechTV’s existing programming, Clayton added. The channel currently features programming categorized according to five different “zones” — news, products, money, help and fun.

“Technology is a very international subject,” she said. “When there’s a virus hitting computers, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Canada or the United States or Europe, it’s important.”

Other programming that focuses on new product launches also cut across the board. Julie Osborne, TechTV’s director of marketing, said its most popular shows in the U.S. include Call for Help, a Q&A-style technical support program featuring a host, Chris Pirillo, who Osborne says is treated like a rock star when he visits trade shows like Comdex Fall in Las Vegas. “With people who watch this channel, these guys have cult appeal,” she said. “They’re really fun to watch and that’s why a call-in show like that has really been successful over time.”

Call For Help’s ratings are followed closely by Fresh Gear, a gadget-oriented new product showcase and Big Thinkers, a weekly half-hour program that brings the biggest stories and technical minds in the business, including the founders of Yahoo! and those associated with the creation of the Internet. “These are people who have really changed the landscape in the technology world,” she said. “They’ll do a face-to-face, well-researched interview, and it’s always a big draw.”

TechTV’s revenue model is based both on subscriptions and advertising. Clayton said the current financial woes afflicting many tech companies has not dampened the channel’s hopes for a healthy response from media buyers.

“We’re certainly aware that there is a tightening of everyone’s budget,” she said. “But advertisers are also aware that there is a specific targeted audience that will want this channel. We know from the U.S. experience that the viewers are very loyal, the brand is strong and, so far, the advertisers are still showing an interest.”

“The beauty of a niche channel is that if you can give a very clear shot at their customer, it gives you a little more security,” Osborne added. “The link between the kind of content and the kind of viewer that TechTV represents and the advertiser is very, very clean.”

Clayton admitted, however, that TechTV has yet to establish a way of tracking the professional status of its viewers.

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