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TechTV Transforms Itself

Like many of the dotcoms it once covered, TechTV has been reprogramming to avoid extinction, repositioning itself as a lifestyle niche net with a technology bent. Now anything from computer-animated series to high tech sports gear to, of course, computers and tech-oriented documentaries is TechTV's domain. But the concept may be a tough sell with viewers.

Original documentary series Wired for Sex
will look at the technology behind sex, pornography and fertility, and Spy School
aims to investigate the top secrets of espionage. Both are slated for the second quarter. Acquisitions include a Japanese-animation block that it's calling "Anime Unleashed" and futuristic series Max Headroom.

It's a more inclusive direction, says COO Joe Gillespie. "The younger you go, technology is a lifestyle, not just about products."

After floundering for two years as a techie-news network, by last spring, TechTV had shed most of its news programming, which had climbed to 12 hours per day at one point. Now, most days have two or three hours.

Gillespie is angling to draw droves of young, upscale male viewers who are early adopters of technology. Those words could seduce many an ad buyer, but some remain skeptical.

"That market is good if they can deliver," said Howard Nass, veteran media buyer and head of HN Media Services. "But their target are the hardest viewers to reach in advertising."

This latest incarnation of TechTV comes three years after Charter Communications Chairman Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures plunked down $320 million to buy the former ZDTV from Ziff-Davis. Allen is said to take keen interest in TechTV's programming but doesn't have much programming experience.

Gillespie has been running TechTV since CEO Larry Wangberg left a year ago. The net has a new programming chief in Greg Brannan, an E! Entertainment Television veteran.

Since 2001, TechTV has slashed its workforce by nearly 200.

TechTV's shift to lifestyle programming comes at a critical stage for the business. "They don't command much in license fees," said one MSO executive, "so they are trying to get more viewers and more advertisers to make it work."

The channel is getting too big to survive off the radar, but its ratings hover around 0.1, which is about as low as you can go. It's piped into 40 million homes, a distribution benchmark for many advertisers. It's in most major markets, divided almost evenly between digital and coveted analog slots.

Problem is, viewers don't know TechTV is there because, says marketing chief Gaynor Strachan Chun, "as an independent, we don't have the ability to cross-promote across sister and cousin networks."

Kris Magel, manager of national broadcast for Optimedia International, wants to see TechTV step up its marketing. "TechTV can be tough to explain [to clients], but, when we do, the clients do buy in."

TechTV is experimenting with partnerships to increase visibility. Its tech correspondent Leo Laporte appears regularly on ABC's quirky overnight World News Now. And it may team up on programming with Oxygen, a shirttail cousin since Allen has a stake in the women's net.

Networks of TechTV's size typically spend around $15 million on programming, TechTV is said to be armed with a bit more.

But, programmers warn, TechTV needs to be very careful in what it puts on the air. "As soon as you see programming that has nothing to do with technology, you'll see problems," cautioned one television executive.