Hirschhorn fills TV niche with lucrative male demo
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/14/2004 7:00:00 PM
Nature abhors a vacuum. So does Charles Hirschhorn. Enter G4, the videogame lifestyle network. TV had pegged men's interests—girls, beer, comedy, cars—he says, save one: videogames. In 2002, with the backing of Comcast, CEO Hirschhorn filled the void.
Launched in 300,000 homes with a weeklong Pong tournament, G4 now counts 13.5 million. If Comcast's expected acquisition of Tech TV happens, G4 may absorb it and hurdle past 40 million homes.
The kicker? Hirschhorn isn't a gamer. He dreamed up his brainchild while running Disney's TV movie and animation division. His family-friendly fare scored with kids and young moms but missed a crucial—and lucrative demo—young men. And, despite his success at Disney, Hirschhorn craved the entrepreneurial life.
He realized his dream thanks, in part, to old friend Steve Burke. The two had worked together at Disney when Burke, now president of Comcast Cable, headed ABC stations. "We get a lot of ideas pitched to us," Burke recalls. "But when Charles told me the idea that became G4, I pulled my car over to the side of the road and told him he needed to come to Philadelphia—right away." Then again, Hirschhorn has a knack for timing.
The Chicago-area native's career trajectory begins in Boston. A Harvard grad, Hirschhorn always saw himself as a restaurateur, until he took a year off from college and worked in two restaurants. "I guess I couldn't take the heat," he says.
In search of a direction, he returned to Boston with a new interest: the movie industry. Armed with the "film" page from the Boston yellow pages, Hirschhorn marched around the city in search of an internship. He landed at movie theater chain Sack, eventually rising to general manager after graduation. But the movies beckoned, and he headed for Los Angeles.
Working for Universal Studios' then-head of production Thom Mount, Hirschhorn juggled assistant duties with script reading. When Mount decided his charge needed field experience, he dispatched Hirschhorn to Chicago to work on Sixteen Candles. As a production assistant, he supplied stars Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall with endless hot chocolate.
Happily for Hirschhorn, he soon graduated to bigger productions, serving as associate producer on baseball classic Bull Durham and later as executive producer on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Movies paved the way for Hirschhorn to break into TV. When Fox Broadcasting was launching, plans called for an original movie each week. Hirschhorn was brought in to develop and shepherd those movies. When movie night was jettisoned, though, he found himself under contract and developing TV shows.
As a TV outsider, he pursued series "with people outside the business," like sketch comedy In Living Color, which launched careers for Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, and the Wayans brothers. He finally got a chance to make TV movies, at Walt Disney Co.
After Disney acquired Cap Cities/ABC, Disney chief Michael Eisner wanted to revive "The Wonderful World of Disney" movie franchise and tapped Hirschhorn. His team made 17 movies in nine months. "We made better movies, we got ratings, we were making money," he recalls. And he got a bonus: overseeing Disney's TV animation. That's when the young-male audience caught his eye. "If we could find something that wouldn't cannibalize [the Disney] audience, I thought that would be a nice match."
He found his match—with a different partner. For now, he's happy building G4, where Comcast culture mixes with a MTV-type vibe. "We're extremely entrepreneurial and willing to embrace risky [ventures]," says Hirschhorn, "as long as they are financially strong."
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