WAITING TO CRACK THE CODE FOR COMPUTERS

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Cable channels devoted to computer topics are getting wired up. All they need now is advertisers.

Though at least three major computer-related cable networks are preparing to switch on during the next year, the mixed record of existing computer shows suggests they won't be an easy sell.

"We're not dying for a new medium to reach computer users," says Steve Hayden, chairman of BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles, Apple Computer's agency. But he adds: "If somebody cracks the code that really makes a good advertising venue for us, then obviously we'll be there."

Observers say existing shows have lacked the excitement, production values and interactive twists to gain much interest. But millions of dollars are being invested by ambitious programmers to change that.

Computer cable channels are developing ways for audience interaction, either by affiliating with existing personal computer on-line services or, down the road, delivering interactive services through cable into a TV or PC.

Channels also are making a play in home shopping. The direct market for PCs and software is enormous, making QVC-style home-shopping a natural for a computer network.

The unanswered question, however, is whether computer specialty channels will prove viable. Existing home-shopping channels sell computers; cable networks such as Discovery and CNN cover computer topics.

Laura Dearborn, exec VP-media director at Saatchi & Saatchi, San Francisco, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s agency, has strong reservations about advertising on a show that might happen to be featuring a rival product.

"We have a problem with the competitive situation, and I don't know if that will change," she says.

Ms. Dearborn also says existing TV channels deliver the audience she wants, meaning the new networks must prove their worth before she jumps in.

"I would rather be someplace where viewers didn't expect my message than in a place where I am surrounded by [ads for] the latest mouse pads and surge protectors," says Mr. Hayden. The cable channels, like PC publications, likely will be heavily reliant on ads from such secondary marketers.

But if cable is moving toward 500 channels, Mr. Hayden figures there's probably room for at least one computer channel. And the race is on to be that channel of choice.

Two powerful names-Microsoft Corp., the leading software marketer, and Tele-Communications Inc., the largest cable system operator-in March announced plans to introduce a cable network targeting the growing PC consumer market.

The network, offering magazine-format shows, home shopping and other programs, will be jointly owned by the partners and is set to switch on next year. Initially, viewers will just watch the show; over time, TCI and Microsoft plan to make it interactive, allowing consumers access to PC information and services through a TV or PC.

Jones International in August will spin off its Jones Computer Network into a 24-hour cable channel, betting that round-the-clock programming about computers will attract everyone from novices to experts. Home shopping is one of the services being considered.

Jones Computer Network began last May as a programming block on Mind Extension University, an education channel owned by Jones International, a cable system operator and programmer.

But Susan Harris-Glass, VP-national advertising sales for Jones Computer Network, acknowledges it hasn't been an easy sell.

"A lot of the computer industry itself really hasn't used television," she says. "Nothing happens very quickly."

Jones Computer Network isn't rated by Nielsen Media Research and "it's hard to go into a traditional agency without real numbers," Ms. Harris-Glass says.

Mind Extension University reaches 26 million households, but some cable systems use Jones Computer Network's valuable existing time slot-8 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week-to run other programming.

Ms. Harris-Glass says some major advertisers, including Compaq Computer Corp. and CompuServe, have bought time on the network.

But the network also runs infomercials from lesser-known marketers such as Komputer Tutor and Video Professor as well as small PC clone marketers.

Infomercials are aired "very sparingly and selectively," Ms. Harris-Glass says.

C/Net: The Computer Network, a third contender, plans to start in the third quarter as a programming block on a "large" existing network that C/Net President Halsey Minor claims will have broader reach than Jones Computer Network. Over time, Mr. Minor wants C/Net to go 24 hours.

Mr. Minor recruited Kevin Wendle, a former exec VP at Fox Broadcasting Co., as president of programming and marketing, and the two have assembled some major talent to host shows, including computer writer and celebrated pundit John Dvorak and MTV veteran Adam Curry.

C/Net will have tie-ins with PC on-line services, allowing viewers to get more information from advertisers and download software and product demos.

Mr. Minor says C/Net, which is just beginning to court advertisers, intends to win with superior programming.

"No infomercials," he says. "This is going to be network prime-time-like programming."

As the three new networks and other ventures gear up, one savvy media player is still watching-and waiting.

Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., the nation's largest publisher of computer magazines, last fall announced it was interested in getting into broadcast or cable as part of a push into non-print media. But Steven Rosenfield, Ziff's director of business development, isn't convinced a computer channel can deliver enough cable systems, viewers and advertisers to pay for high-quality productions.

"The bottom line on this thing is that you really need an innovative and heretofore untested method to produce television programming so you don't drown in red ink," he says.

"Technology programming on television is an uncharted and untested market," he notes.

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