UGM 2008

Ten years ago we launched ZDTV (which later became TechTV) and The Screen Savers, its most popular show. We wanted to begin with a bang, so Kate Botello and I decided to build the “Ultimate Gaming Machine” basing it on Lloyd Case’s design from Computer Gaming World. In 1998, that meant a PII 400 Mhz, 128 MB of RAM, and a fabulously expensive widescreen Sony CRT (and a price tag of over $10,000). Here’s what it looked like back then…

There have been 9 UGMs built since then, the most recent for Attack of the Show in 2005 (which cost around $6000 and was a lot faster). Since I’m launching TWiT Live 10 years later I thought it would be fun to see what the UGM would look like these days. Only this time, we’re going to let you build it.

Starting Friday, June 6, we’ll be inviting you to pick the parts for UGM 2008. From processors, to motherboard, to video and sound system, the choice will be yours. We’ll spend a couple of hours debating the merits of each component, with expert commentary to help you decide, then when we reach consensus we’ll buy it. At the end of the month we’ll assemble our creation and then give it away to some lucky TWiT Live viewer.

I’m not sure exactly how we’ll give it away. I know I mentioned this on TWiT and proposed a crazy scheme to get me more followers on Twitter. All I can say is I must have been drunk. It won’t be necessary to follow me, or Dvorak, and it definitely won’t be necessary to unfollow Kevin. I’m going to check with the legal department and find a fair way to do this that doesn’t require anyone to join Twitter!

We’ll kick things off Friday, June 6, at 3p Pacific, 6p Eastern, 2200 UTC with a processor showdown. AMD or Intel, which will it be? I’ll have experts on both sides then I’ll ask you to decide. June 13 it’s Motherboards and Memory. June 20th, video cards and monitors. June 27th storage and peripherals. We’ll finish the machine on the 4th of July, choose the best five games for it, and award it to a lucky winner.

So join us Fridays starting in June as we recreate one of the most loved bits we ever did on The Screen Savers. It should be a lot of fun, and who knows, you could walk away with UGM 10!

This Old Post

ttvtear.jpgI 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.

— Anonymous

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.

Missing TechTVer

I just received this disturbing news. If any of you knows anything please help…James and family

CNET editor and former Fresh Gear contributor and Lab analyst James
Kim has been missing since Saturday. ANY word, especially from people
in the Oregon area is appreciated. The information is all below from
the official investigation by the SFPD.

Missing Family Includes: James, Kati, Penelope (age 4.5) and Sabine (6 months). Last name is Kim

Overview: The Kim Family left San Francisco on November 17th
on a road trip to the Pacific Northwest. They had Thanksgiving in
Seattle with family and then drove to Portland. They were last seen by
their friends in Portland whom they had brunch with on Saturday,
November 25. According to their friends, their plans were to drive out
to the town of Gold Beach on the Oregon Coast and then make their way
back to San Francisco. James was expected back at work on Tuesday,
November 28th. When no one had heard from him by Wednesday morning
employees at the Kims’ two stores and his colleagues at CNET began to
make phone calls to his family and friends to inquire of his
whereabouts. Presently, the SFPD is investigating the case.

The family was last heard from at around 5:45 PM on Saturday. A
hotel clerk at the Tu Tu Tun lodge in Gold Beach, Oregon took a call
from James. He said he was about five hours away. The hotel clerk said
she would leave the keys out for them as the lobby would be closed
after 10. The keys were still in the same place the next morning. The
clerk believes James referred to being near Salem, Oregon at the time.
They were driving a 2005 silver Saab station wagon with California
personalized plates of “DOESF”.

More details and pictures of the family are available on CNET’s Crave Blog.

If you know anything about James’ whereabouts, you can contact the SFPD by calling 415-558-5508 during normal business hours and 415-553-1071 after hours.  

Call for Canada

The-New-Call-for-HelpersI‘m very happy to report that I’ve agreed to host a daily show for G4/TechTV Canada starting later this summer. We’ll produce the show here in Toronto. I’ll fly up one week a month to shoot. It looks like the format will be very similar to Call for Help, and, yes, we’ll be taking calls. Once we get the web site up and running there will be a place for you to submit your questions as before.
Pictured at left, my co-hosts (and actual Canadians) the lovely Jelena Mihajlovic and the geeky Andy Walker.

More details to come. Stay tuned. Now we’re off to see the Jays and the Dodgers. I’ll post pictures.

Thanks, David!

Thanks to New York Times columnist (and good friend) David Pogue for his heartfelt column in the Thursday New York Times Circuits section. [free registration required – but it’s worth it]
David got it right with one exception. He writes:

In fact, G4TechTV is indeed in negotiations with Mr. Laporte about an increased role at the new network.

He’s quoting a company spokesman, not me. I am not “in negotiations” with G4. We have a cordial relationship, but if they have plans for an increased role for me at the channel they’re keeping it a secret. And you couldn’t characterize our infrequent conversations as negotiations in any way.

I am, however, talking with a number of people about new TV shows. I’m hopeful something will come of that. I’ll keep you posted when there’s something more to say.

Call for Help Newsletter Madness

Help!First a disclaimer, I no longer work for G4/TechTV and have nothing to do with the newsletter and have no inside information, however…
I am getting numerous emails from former subscribers to the Call for Help newsletter who are suddenly being flooded with email. I think what’s happened is that Tom Merritt, the outgoing web producer, changed the newsletter from a daily email sent out to viewers, into a mailing list where everything that is sent to the list is broadcast out to each subscriber. Naturally this is a confusing change, and with a list this large it can generate an overwhelming amount of mail.

Do NOT send an unsubscribe message to the list – that will just be sent out to all subscribers and exacerbate the problem. Instead, follow the unsubscribe instructions at the bottom of the message.

[UPDATE: I have learned that this is not the MAIN Call for Help newsletter. That’s no longer going out. This is a Yahoo! Groups newsletter that was created a couple of years ago when we changed newsletter providers. Fortunately all Yahoo! Groups emails have an unsubscribe link at the bottom.]