Ziff-Davis plans TV channel

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Ziff-Davis said it will start a 24-hour cable channel about computers and the Internet in the first quarter of 1998.

The tech publisher is committing more than $100 million and will hire more than 300 people for ZDTV: Your Computer Channel and a related Web site. The site, zdtv.com, launches in the fourth quarter.

Eleven major advertisers have each made the same "six-figure" commitment to be charter sponsors, said Eric Hippeau, Ziff-Davis' chairman-CEO. Sponsors are Corel Corp., Gateway 2000, IBM Corp., Intel Corp., Micron Electronics, Microsoft Corp., Novell, Oracle Corp., Charles Schwab, Siebel Systems and Sun Microsystems.

The channel will be based in San Francisco, where ZDTV already employs 60 people on other projects, primarily "The Site," a daily computer show that is co-produced with and run on MSNBC.

ZDTV has hired Blazing Paradigm, San Francisco, as agency of record to develop trade and consumer ads for the channel.

Ziff-Davis scrapped a plan earlier in the decade to jump into TV, and rival efforts to create standalone computer cable channels haven't gained a mass audience.

Show producers have been more successful in running computer programs on existing channels. CNET Inc., for example, produces two hours of programming a week for USA Networks' USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel. Jones International, creator of the pioneering Jones Computer Network on cable, runs computer programs on its Knowledge TV channel.

Ziff-Davis is betting growing interest in computing makes the time right for a TV assault.

ZDTV intends to be "the ultimate television resource for the 100 million Americans who use computers today, and the countless other millions who will use computers tomorrow," Mr. Hippeau said.

"Can you imagine a world where there is no computer channel by the year 2000?" he asked. "The right time is right now."

Ziff-Davis brings significant assets: It is the nation's largest producer of computer publications and has a powerful network of Web sites, allowing it to build on a powerful base of editorial and advertising. Its parent, Softbank Corp., is aligned with Rupert Murdoch on a Japanese satellite TV venture, and Ziff-Davis has talked about providing TV content to Mr. Murdoch in the U.K.

But ZDTV faces a daunting challenge: It hasn't yet signed any cable operators to carry the channel, and gaining distribution is difficult since many cable systems are overloaded. Even titans like Viacom and Mr. Murdoch's News Corp. are laboring to gain distribution for well-capitalized new channels.

Ziff-Davis contends cable systems over time will expand capacity. Consumers with satellite dishes also will be able to receive the channel.

Richard Fisher, ZDTV exec VP and acting CEO, said the channel will make cable operators "a compelling competitive offer whose benefits are equal" to or better than deals with other channels.

One scheme: ZDTV will help broker deals between cable systems and USWeb Corp. to develop and host Web sites for cable operators. USWeb, an Internet services company, is partly owned by Softbank.

Still, Mr. Fisher acknowledged distribution "is a hot topic, and it is very, very hard."

"Ziff-Davis has looked at this, we know it's hard, and it's a long commitment that is going to make it work," Mr. Fisher said. "We are in this for the long haul."

ZDTV has created a sister division, ZD Television Productions, that will continue to co-produce "The Site" for MSNBC. ZD Television Productions also is working on production deals with several other channels, including a show about the wired home to run this fall on Home & Garden Television. "That's not a signed deal, but there's a handshake," Mr. Fisher said.

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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