Video Games Network In Play

Comcast Corp. plans to expand its programming portfolio by helping to launch a digital service dedicated to video games, according to several sources.

The proposed cable network, which will reportedly be called "G4," aims to debut early next year. It's being created by several veterans of E! Entertainment Television, who have approached Comcast about financial backing for the start-up channel.

Two sources said G4 has already secured a funding commitment from Comcast, while a third source maintained that negotiations were still under way. A Comcast spokesman declined to comment last week.

G4 plans to target video-game aficionados with shows related to those games. Its content would include previews of new video games among other programming, according to sources.

It was unclear at press time if the network would include any interactive-gaming applications.

The proposed network is the brainchild of Charles Hirschorn, former head of The Walt Disney Co.'s TV and animation unit, two sources said. Debra Green, E!'s ex-senior vice president of affiliate relations, has been recruited to spearhead G4's launch and serve as its chief operating officer. The start-up network has already rented space in Los Angeles for its operations, one source said.

The rest of G4's management team is now being assembled, with Ann Carlsen doing some of the recruiting, several sources said. The video-game network already has a number of veterans of E! on board; Comcast is one of the entertainment channel's major stakeholders.

Dale Hopkins, E!'s former senior vice president of marketing, will reportedly head up G4's affiliate sales and ad sales. And Julie Fields, former vice president of creative services for E!, is also part of the new network's team.

Hopkins declined to comment. Green and Hirschorn couldn't be reached.

G4 would dedicate coverage to a topic that doesn't get much attention on television today.

Currently, Tech TV is one of the few outlets to offer video-game related programming, in the form of a half-hour weekly show called Extended Play.
The show, which includes previews of video games and coverage of gaming conventions, is popular with Tech TV viewers, according to a network spokeswoman. But she couldn't provide ratings for the show.

The now-defunct Sega Channel permitted cable customers to play video games on their TV set for a subscription fee, but offered no traditional TV programming devoted to video games.

Comcast has made no secret of its desire to own more content, and has added to its programming stable. In addition to its investment in E!, Comcast has sole ownership or stakes in Style, QVC, Outdoor Life Network, The Golf Channel and several regional sports networks.

G4's concept of targeting video-game players would give Comcast a play in a pretty open field.

"With a new network, you look for something you can gain traction with that doesn't have competition," said Michael Goodman, senior analyst at The Yankee Group. "You address a niche that's not being served."

G4 looks to tap into the booming video-game industry, and the attendant advertising that supports it. After a downturn last year, the video-game industry is expected to post retail sales of more than $7 billion this year, according to the NPD Group, a market-research company. Sales of video games were up 28 percent in the first half of the year compared with the prior-year period.

"There is certainly some potential for a network like this," Goodman said. "There's a big game-playing audience. Video-game magazines do pretty well. And so do game-oriented Web sites. So there is a market for information among gamers."

Goodman noted that players in just one segment of the gaming industry — video-game hardware makers Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and Nintendo — plan to spend close to $1 billion to advertise their offerings this year.

"If you have a channel dedicated to video games, it's someplace they clearly would be interested in advertising on," Goodman said.

At least one cable operator is taking a wait-and-see stance on G4.

"It's going to have to be really inexpensive," said Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable in Ohio.

He also questioned whether "a gamer is going to watch a TV show about a game they don't play."

"Even Sega Channel couldn't get enough people, as a subscription service," Gessner noted.

Longtime E! veterans Hopkins and Green left the entertainment channel in 1999, not long after the exit of then-president Lee Masters. Hopkins went on to join the start-up Internet game site as president; Fields also joined the dot-com as senior vice president of creative development. Green started her own consulting firm, Greenhouse Associates. The former E! executives got to know both Comcast chairman Ralph Roberts and president Brian Roberts during their stints at the entertainment channel.