When he joined G4 as president in 2005, Neal Tiles faced a daunting task: to create a new voice, programming strategy and look for the Comcast-owned cable network.
It wouldn't be easy. G4's target audience is young men, a demographic coveted by advertisers but very fickle in what messaging resonates with them. This was also during the early days of YouTube, as young, tech-savvy guys first enjoyed the untapped potential of the Web and began watching what they wanted, when they wanted.
“At the time, we were sitting at a paradigm shift of media consumption,” Tiles recalls. “You have a network [G4] geared toward early adopters, and they were the ones forcing this media revolution. We were thinking of ways to make that work while we were redefining ourselves.”
Tiles was uniquely qualified to manage that change. A marketer by trade, he also knew a thing or two about what young male viewers were interested in seeing, thanks to years at ESPN and Fox Sports.
“In many respects it [reminded] me of when I was at ESPN, around the time when ESPN2 was launched as the sort of younger, wilder, hipper brother of ESPN,” he says.
But experience is only part of the equation. For Tiles, passion and commitment to securing the demographic have paid off with improved ratings in the target group in each of the three full years he's been there.
“[Neal] reads and learns and knows everything about what is going on with that audience,” says Comcast Entertainment Group President and CEO Ted Harbert. “He works extremely hard to really dig into the behaviors and desires of his demo.”
Tiles first worked toward that end when he joined ESPN as its director of advertising and program marketing in 1995, after stints at agencies Young & Rubicam, Foote, Cone & Belding and BBDO. “It was like the golden age there,” Tiles says, recalling ESPN's now-iconic “This Is SportsCenter” commercials, which were developed around that time.
Tiles moved on to Fox Sports in 1997 as its senior VP and later executive VP of marketing, reporting to chairman David Hill, whom Tiles cites as teaching him vital lessons about running a network. “Working for someone who had been both the president of entertainment and the sports division, it really was a unique experience,” he says.
He left Fox in 2003, joining DirecTV as its executive VP of marketing shortly after News Corp. acquired a controlling interest in the satellite provider. But he soon felt the desire to return to the creative side, which he'd do in 2005, when Comcast Programming Group President Jeff Shell called him about joining G4.
At the time, almost all of G4's original programming had a video-game focus. Tiles set about changing the channel's voice, maintaining its video-game heritage by keeping the signature program X-Play but shaping it into more of a lifestyle channel targeting young guys.
Task number one was boosting the network's ratings by acquiring off-network rights to shows that would reliably bring in the target demo. The network's first major acquisitions were reruns of the original Star Trek series, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation. More recent acquisitions include Lost, Heroes and canceled Fox comedy Arrested Development. Those shows would help bolster a lineup of originals, including daily tech culture program Attack of the Show, as well as acquired international series such as Japan's Ninja Warrior.
Tiles also sought to take advantage of the network's size to boost its live events coverage. And he banked on events such as video-game expo E3 and Comic-Con becoming tent poles for the network.
The strategy worked: G4's E3 coverage has become one of the net's highest-rated events each year, with Comic-Con close behind. The network sells packages around the conferences, turning them into profitable enterprises, and uses them to promote other properties. “They became ratings opportunities for us,” he says.
And though Tiles himself is slightly older than his target demo, the self-professed gamer keeps his head in things by playing video games with his young daughters. For Tiles, it's all about practicing what he preaches—and in terms of ratings, improving on his high scores.