I love the “This Day on Leoville” section of this blog. Not because I enjoy
pouring poring over my old semi-literate posts, but because it’s a time machine that takes me back to a magical era when TechTV was new and the sweet scent of possiblity was everywhere. Or maybe that’s just the smell of popcorn burning in the microwave.
I was looking at my post from this day in 2001 and I found the following in the comments (often the best part of these old posts). Seven years later it’s pretty funny and teribbly sad. I don’t remember the name of the disgruntled ex-employee who wrote it and snuck it onto the TechTV web site, but I do remember buying him a drink a few days later. He was very kind to me, if mean to everyone else.
Many of you remember TechTV from this era with fondness. I certainly do, but even then, only three years into its six year run, there was trouble on the horizon. I don’t agree with everything he says, but in hindsight, the author of this acid post was prophetic, and obviously one of the very funny and talented people who got crushed by the TechTV steamroller. I’m very grateful that it got saved here.
(And if the actual author is reading this – say hello! You were spot on. TechLive was, in fact, the beginning of the end, even though it took three more years for Uncle Paul to actually tire of the channel and kill it by selling it to the chop shop known as Comcast.)
UPDATE: Tom Merritt reminds me it was Josh Green! Wonder where he is now.
18 April 2001
Many people shrug their shoulders about TechTV, they sit there and say, “Hey, it’s just like any other company, terrible managers, dysfunctional organizational structures, bad communication. Whaddya gonna do?’ But these people are mistaken. TechTV is far, far worse than most companies for the simple reason that the people at the top – namely Larry Wangberg, Greg Drebin, Glenn Farrell, and on the Web side, David Miller and Lynn Weiss – are in various ways incompetent, arrogant, strategically moronic and completely inept at keeping employees happy and motivated.
So here’s my Top Ten list on why TechTV will likely be out of money by this time next year:
10. The driver’s asleep at the wheel. CEO Larry Wangberg can barely put a sentence together. Here are a few examples of his handiwork when he sends an e-mail to “ALL’ –
“If you aren’t sleeping right now I hope that you are standing very tall. What a lifetime memorable world class day.’
“Sets are looking great, most of our technical infrastructure is working, and it is great to see the rehersals. Know that there is a lot that still is getting pulled together and that you are working very hard.’
Not exactly the words of rocket scientist, nor someone who knows how to spell “rehearsals.’
9. The TechTV concept made sense – TWO YEARS AGO. Of course technology isn’t going away, and of course people are still interested in it. The question is how much do they care RIGHT NOW. Management chose to put all their eggs in one basket: Tech Live (a.k.a. Tech Dive), a 9 = hour block of programming that is currently driving most faithful TechTV viewers away from the channel. They launched this flagship product at the precise moment when the market was at its lowest, when NOBODY in their right minds is investing in tech stocks, and when we are in the middle of a recession (or whatever it is) during which people have far less money to buy tech products. Nice move. Should’ve stuck with Leo TV and renamed it the Help Channel.
8. Target audience doesn’t exist. TechTV wants to become the destination channel for all those sophisticated technology professionals and financial market guys who are watching TV in their cubes. Um, yeah. Here’s the big problem. Those guys don’t EXIST, because the only people who have TVs in their cubes are TechTV employees. The financial guys are all tuned in to Bloomberg and CNBC. To believe that these guys would turn away from these channels to watch Carmine Gallo or Pam Krueger fumble over the day’s tech market news is not just laughable, it’s pathetic. They should have been happy with TechTV’s original audience: horny teenagers harassing female talent, shut-ins who use the Internet as their only form of social interaction, and techie geeks who count their mothers among “women they’ve kissed.’
7. “Business strategy’ is a term that makes people at TechTV snicker. Most people employed at TechTV know that the content and business strategy at TechTV is likely to change every few weeks. Of course, I didn’t know that when I was hired in October under a system that had the site divided into five stand-alone zones, each with an executive producer. The five-zone system lasted about three months. The funny thing is, most of the “new’ strategies that the braintrust comes up with are actually old strategies that didn’t work revisited. Is it any wonder that the latest “business plan’ for the Web constructed by gurus (or idiot savants, depending on how you look at it) David Miller and Glenn Farrell was taken with a grain of salt? This was the FIRST business plan for the Web side, and it came nearly four years after the site launched.
6. The best people at the company are either laid off or kept in menial positions. Damn right I’m talking about me. But really, that’s not the whole picture. There are definitely smart, talented people at TechTV – the problem is that they are in no position to have an impact on the direction of the product, company or anything else. We have two terms for the people with an “associate’ or even “producer’ title: web monkey and gerbil. The verbs, “to web monkey’ or “to gerbil (gerbiling)’ also have common usage. These mean the same thing. People are trained to get on their wheel and wrestle with an archaic publishing tool eight hours a day to get stories up on the site. In the meantime, their talent and creative power goes circling down the drain.
5. The company is chocked full of, and run by, TV people. For TechTV to claim it is remotely a Web or technology company is, again, a big joke. It is a TV station, run by TV people, with a TV focus, and the Web, as a friend once told me, is and always will be the “red-headed stepchild.’ I don’t want to stereotype here – well, wait a second, yes I do. TV people are in general more stupid, shallow and less pleasant professionally than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I think this is because of the medium they work in – which by its very nature is superficial, stimulating without being intellectual, and sometimes outright boring. They don’t call it the boob tube for nothing. I just wish the boobs had stayed away from TechTV.
4. The Audience of One. Everyone at TechTV knows what this means. Whether you know him as “Uncle Paul,’ “The Man,’ or simply “God,’ he’s the only reason TechTV even exists. When rich guys have visions, strange creatures are born. When extremely rich guys have visions, really screwed up, mutant monster-freaks are born. Hence TechTV. Content on the channel and the site are geared to please Paul, and nothing else, no matter what management tells you. Simple reason: if you don’t please the guy who’s cutting your paycheck, it’s all over. But having an audience of one is extremely dangerous – when the One gets bored and gets up to walk out of the theater, the show’s over. Paul Allen loves the idea of TechTV – but even he, with his abyss-like pockets, won’t keep this charity case afloat forever.
3. Lying to employees. Though nobody in upper management would ever admit it, there’s a serious trust problem within TechTV. It’s all about the now infamous “need-to-know’ policy, meaning information is only shared at the exact moment when you need to know (which is always too late). This translates to a top-down decision-making process: a few idiots assemble for “off-sites’ (oh, be very afraid when that happens), people and structures are moved around like toy soldiers on a battlefield chart, and stupid decisions are handed down a week later, after rumors have already destroyed the credibility of the managers. Employees and their input are completely ignored in this process, so it’s no big surprise that paranoia, low morale and a “cover-your-***’ approach to everything are par for the course at TechTV.
2. B-Grade talent (OK, maybe C-Grade). Channel and program loyalty is built on personalities. Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings made Nightline. Willow Bay made Moneyline (at least for me). And the only guy who TechTV viewers love is Leo Laporte, who I’ll grant has a real personality that touches people. TechTV’s response to this was to move him off his show, make him read the news and be less funny, and reduce him to occasional help tips on Tech Dive. And then there’s the rest of the talent. Um, yeah. In the TV world, second or third-tier cable channels are just launching pads to bigger and better things. Problem is, nobody at TechTV, with the possible exception of Michaela, Erica Hill and a couple others, has a chance at the big time. Nothing against them, they try hard, but attempting to do ad lib on Tech Live for people who aren’t used to thinking original thoughts is like throwing a cat into a swimming pool.
And the No. 1 reason TechTV will fail:
Over-ambition: We’re not “all experts’ on technology. This is a mantra that Jim Louderback likes to throw out there. But there are a couple of harsh realities to face: First, TechTV does a couple things well. It puts out product reviews as soon as new gadgets are released, and it (or I should say, Leo) does a great job with techie help questions. Had TechTV stuck with what it knew, namely those two strengths, maybe a niche for it would have been found. But no, TechTV has to be the “CNBC of tech.’ We have to explode everything into some big supernova of tech programming, because we’re all “experts’ and can provide so much more insight into the tech world than multimillion dollar media giants on cable, network TV and the Web. But you can’t build a mansion with toothpicks. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge about technology can watch five minutes of Tech Live and see that TechTV is following the news, not breaking it, and it is speaking down to the lowest common denominator Grandma-who-just-got-email, not up toward the digerati of the Valley. Trying to break news is admirable, but you have to be realistic about what resources you have to actually do it. And it doesn’t help that TechTV has as much name recognition among tech sources as a small community weekly newsletter.
Right now the best “up-to-the-minute’ stuff the network can do are things that happen in San Francisco and are technically easy to cover (see Napster, ad nauseum). Have a story break somewhere else and you’re looking at a couple hours of arguments on renting crews, trucks and feeds, and then more delays in getting those things to actually work. You only have to look at the digitizing process – namely, actually having to physically bring a tape over to some poor slob in the dig room, who takes several hours to manually run it through (welcome to broadband) – to realize that TechTV overstepped its bounds. It will never match the quality of news coverage that other cable channels can give, and for management to think that we can do “more, with less’ was just a pipe dream. Maybe that’s all it ever was, a whimsical dream from the imagination of old Uncle Paul.
As a number of us old TechTVers launch into the next generation of IPTV, this time working for ourselves, it’s worth re-reading this old screed, if only to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes all over again. Thank you acid-penned masked man, wherever you are.
Oh, and by the way, four years to the day after this was written, TWiT was launched.