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G4 network is spared the ax, but at the cost of relevance

It looks like triple-digit cable station G4 won a reprieve from the network gallows.

NBC Universal Cable Entertainment Group chairman Bonnie Hammer said in a memo Monday that the scheduled Sept. 23 rebranding of the channel as the Esquire Network won't be taking place, and that Style will be reformatted instead because it is "redundant." G4 will continue to exist, meanwhile, albeit with no new original programming or anything resembling a plan for the future.

"One of the hallmarks of our success is brand clarity. Our goal has always been delivery of compelling content by means of distinct, complementary brands, each in its clearly defined lane," she said in her memo, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

She was referring specifically to NBCU's three remaining "women's networks" — Bravo, Oxygen and E! — but the context is fitting: While the G4 brand will remain, the network itself (and its devotion to video games as an integral part of its programming) needs a major overhaul.

G4 has never had what you'd call a coherent mission, likely a residual effect of its revolving door ownership through the years. Its focus on a tech-savvy, younger male audience was reinforced with an often sophomoric sense of humor and a penchant for hiring female correspondents and hosts who, despite their competence, served largely as eye candy. Programming choices, meanwhile, have changed little in the last decade, catering to a Gen X audience that has grown out of the network's near constant reruns of Cops, Quantum Leap and American Ninja Warrior.

But one of the great things to come from the network for gamers was X-Play, the only nightly show that truly treated video games as being newsworthy. Beginning its run on ZDTV way back in 1998 as GameSpot TV, X-Play was a dependable font of gaming exclusives and industry happenings. The show was so influential in game reporting, it was slated to make the move to Esquire after the transition, despite being canceled on Jan. 23, ostensibly for ratings, but conveniently ahead of the planned (then delayed) February switch. X-Play has been running in repeats on G4 ever since, and that doesn't seem too likely to change.

The Hollywood Reporter said that G4 would continue broadcasting, but it was a stretch to think NBC Universal would create any more original programming for the network. General manager Adam Stotsky was to stay in charge at G4, but still handle the launch of the Esquire Network, an undertaking sure to take up the bulk of his attention and resources.

It's probably safe to infer those resources won't go into hiring back Adam Sessler, Morgan Webb, Jessica Chobot or any of the other personalities that made X-Play great simply by taking the subject matter seriously.

Paired with G4's Attack of the Show!, which kickstarted the careers of Olivia Munn and Chris Hardwick but also was canceled in January, X-Play helped G4 give credence to video games as a valued medium. Reviews were honest, and news about hardware and software makers was presented with an air of institutional knowledge. It was a nice break from industry mouthpieces like Game Informer magazine or Spike's GameTrailers TV, the weekly show hosted by Geoff Keighley, himself a former G4 employee.

It may be wishful thinking, but NBC Universal has an opportunity here to try again with G4. It could choose to recraft the network, which has been batted between executives and built up and torn down several times in the last 15 years. It could bring video games and tech news back into prime time, and try to win over a younger audience with a new formula that could peel them away from shows streaming to their laptops to put them back in front of the family TV. But it doesn't seem likely.

Perhaps what's killing G4 is indicative of what killed X-Play: Fewer and fewer people who are plugged into gaming and tech news are watching TV on a TV. X-Play's Sessler knows all about it; After being unceremoniously fired in April 2012, he became executive producer of Rev3Games on Internet network Revision3.

It's probable that G4 will be consigned to airing infomercials and '80s action movies indefinitely until NBC Universal decides to burn the place down and start over, most likely making it some basic-cable dumping ground for more sub-par reality shows. That's a shame, because for a brief moment, a space of 10 years or so, G4's shows in general, and X-Play in particular, made nerd culture acceptable.

It's too bad they couldn't keep up with their own fans.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

G4 network is spared the ax, but at the cost of relevance 09/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 8:38pm]

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