It's game on for cable's G4 network.
Launched by Comcast in 2002 as a channel for video gamers, G4 has broadened its focus to young men of all stripes and carved a distinctive niche airing Japanese stunt shows in prime time.
Helped by a merger with Tech TV, the channel now reaches 64 million homes. And though its audience is still tiny, averaging 138,000 viewers in prime time last year, it has had 15 consecutive months of growth among its target audience of men ages 18 to 34.
In hindsight, the focus on TV about video games was "a strategy that was flawed, because guys are spending so much time doing the gaming themselves," says Comcast Entertainment Group president Ted Harbert, who also oversees E! and Style. "And these guys are online, not in front of the set like they used to be."
Last month, G4 filled out Duty Free TV, a prime-time block of Japanese stunt shows led by Ninja Warrior, its top-rated series; Unbeatable Banzuke, a precursor; and Big Super Product Fun Show, a goofy mix of Jackass and weird product showcase.
This summer, look for more humor aimed at the Maxim set: Hurl, an original U.S.-made eating-and-regurgitating competition that will gorge contestants on chicken pot pies or clam chowder, then strap them into spinning rides. "Whoever hurls last wins," says G4 president Neal Tiles. And on June 1, the channel will premiere animated series Spaceballs, based on the Mel Brooks movie, along with the TV premiere of The King of Kong, a documentary about the quest for high-scoring stardom in Donkey Kong.
G4 is also supplementing syndicated staple Cops with same-week repeats of NBC's Heroes, and this fall begins airing ABC's Lost, starting with the series pilot, each weeknight. Other fixtures: Attack of the Show, a magazine series, and X-Play, a video-game review series.
Unlike Spike's imported Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, which features dubbed commentary from jokey American announcers, G4 has preserved its series' antic Japanese narration, opting for subtitles with only recaps in English.
"There's so much great television content in native languages around the world, and no one in the USA is going after it," Tiles says. "The network is heavily influenced by Japanese culture, (which is) setting so many trends, in video games, electronics, animation. Their TV is insane," he says.
Ninja Warrior, known as Sasuke (SAS-kay) in Japan, is a twice-yearly tournament that began in 1997. A hundred contestants are pitted against a grueling four-stage outdoor obstacle course; only a few have ever beaten the entire course. The latest edition, taped last week outside Yokohama, features two American contest winners of a makeshift course G4 set up at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California. It will air as a special in May.
"Sasuke is huge" in Japan, says Greg Bellon, the U.S. representative for producer Tokyo Broadcasting System. Contestants, often costumed to illustrate their line of work, are "national TV heroes because of what they have accomplished."
Tiles says G4 will still cater to its core viewers, "the early adopter who's incessantly looking for information," by covering Comic-Con, the Consumer Electronics Show and E3 conventions.
But Harbert concedes that the channel needs to invest in marketing if it hopes to come near the likes of Comedy Central or Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, which target the same elusive audience of young men. He says just 53% of homes who receive the channel know it exists.
"I don't think they have a lot of brand-name awareness," says SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine. "They're a very low-profile network, and that's always dangerous" when cable systems are asked to renew contracts.