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October 4, 2015

TV 101: Why Leo Laporte represents the future of TV (kinda) - VIDEO

by Jay Black, posted Jan 7th 2009 1:03PM
Man of the future? Or just well-produced nonsense-ary?Seeing as this is the new year and all, I figured today's column would concentrate on the future. My original plan was to write extensively about what television will become following the detonation of the Yellowstone supervolcano -- who's ready for static?! -- but in the spirit of Hope (tm), I scratched that in favor of something a bit more positive.

My guess is that the numbers break down this way: 90% of you have no idea at all who Leo Laporte is, 7% kinda sorta remember him from the ill-fated ZDNET cable channel, and 2% of you are TWitTs like me. (The other one percent? Spambots worried about my "girth").

It's time to get to know Leo, because over the last year he has single-handedly created a brand-new paradigm for how TV is going to be viewed on the net ... kinda.

TWiT stands for "This Week in Technology", the flagship netcast in Laporte's home-produced media empire. Some of his other shows that you probably haven't heard of: MacBreak Weekly, Windows Weekly, Munchcast, Security Now!, and Net@Nite.

The entire "network" started life as a series of podcasts and, indeed, that's where Laporte still gets the majority of his listeners. This year, however, he started TWiT Live, an online "channel" that broadcasts the taping of those podcasts.

So maybe you've read this far and you're not ready to believe that the future of TV is a 52 year-old former basic cable host who broadcasts himself taping his own podcasts. Well check this out: did I mention he does it out of his basement and that the average live viewership of his shows (according to Wikipedia) is around 2000 people?

Admit it, your world is a little rocked right now.

Okay, so the numbers aren't impressive, but the fact that they're low and that Laporte is still making a living is exactly what makes TWiT such a good model for how other self-motivated broadcasting talents are going to make the migration to the internet.

Before we examine what Laporte is doing right, let's take a look at what the rest of the internet is doing wrong.

There are approximately twelve million webcasting "experiments" currently cluttering up the internet. If you exclude porn (which I always hate to do, but, unfortunately, it doesn't fit into the discussion), they're mostly split up into two groups: big budget enterprises created by traditional media, and sad-sack amateur productions.

The jury is still out on whether the big budget productions are ever going to earn their money back. Frankly, whenever I hear about a new web venture whose "innovation" is that instead of watching the show on your TV, you get to watch it in a YouTube window, I wonder if the big media companies wouldn't be better off just building a big, Brewster's Millions style cube of cash and then lighting it on fire.

At least you could charge tickets to that.

As for the amateur stuff...

I guess it's better than the programming on VH1. But, then, so is diarrhea.

That's the problem with current web programming. On the one hand, you have old-school TV thinking: throw buckets of money at a slick production with huge names and then hope for millions of viewers so you can earn that money back. On the other, you have crazy shut-ins with access to video equipment. Neither, so far, is a very effective money-making scheme.

Laporte, I think, is the happy medium between "slick production" and "crazy shut-in."

Here's what he does right:

1. He comes from a broadcasting background.

He's not an amateur. Unlike most of the dopes who bought a MacBook with a webcam and figured the world couldn't wait to watch them type, Laporte comes from the traditional broadcasting world. He knows how to be entertaining on camera, and his radio-friendly voice sounds like a sack of purring kittens dipped in a vat of warm honey.

2. He keeps his operation nimble.

His "studios" are well apportioned, but, still, they're in his basement. His guests are Skyped in. He's got no Hollywood-style entourage surrounding him (though you could make the argument that John C. Dvorak is kind of like Johnny Drama). I don't have budget numbers on what it takes for him to produce his content, but when you consider that an hour of The Tonight Show costs approximately $400,000 before you factor Leno's salary, Laporte's set-up has to be peanuts by comparison.

3. He focuses on a niche-market.

"Niche", of course, is just another word for "nerd." Most of Laporte's shows are built around the shiny, technical doo-dads that bore the hell out of my wife. She walked in on me watching TWiT one day, and I think she was disappointed that I wasn't watching porn.

But it's that niche market that allows Laporte to make money despite his small viewership. Laporte can give advertisers realistic assurances that the people they want to reach are watching his programming.

(By the way, all it would take for my wife to board the internet crazy train is for one smart online broadcaster to start a show about romance novels set in 18th century Ireland).

4. He has built an online community.

And no, I don't mean some grafted-on social networking BS. People watching his shows are in constant communication with both each other and the guests appearing on them. This isn't Wolf Blitzer numbly reading emails on CNN (presumably while thinking about how wicked-awesome his beard is), this is actual real-time communication.

5. He actually knows something about the internet.

If it wasn't for the video of him doing the show, I'd have thought that Laporte was less a man than a giant brain connected directly to digg.com. He's not a studio executive getting a 15-minute PowerPoint about what Web 2.0 means, he's a die-hard information junkie. Laporte is therefore positioned to anticipate trends better than any studio-financed focus group.

6. He's his own man.

No studio to answer to and no money people to sweat through their three-piece suits means that Leo Laporte can talk about whatever controversial subjects he wants to, without fear of reprisal. Of course, he never talks about controversial subjects (with the possible exception of non-pasteurized cheese on Munchcast), but the point is he could if he wanted to.


These six items add up to the future of television. Maybe.

The days of monolithic viewership are just about over. Studio productions with gigantic weekly overhead are already starting to look like dinosaurs coughing on iridium-soaked dust. The economics of the web just don't seem to easily facilitate those types of shows.

Yet, people aren't going to want to watch the Chocolate Rain guy every week either. They demand competence.

So, this is what I see coming in the next few years: a legion of Leo Laportes. I think we'll see garage-style productions that are a huge step above the average moron's USB camera, but fall just short of a big studio production (though, as the technology improves, the gap will get ever smaller).

I think we'll see more narrow focus. Think The Food Network, except narrower. The Salad Network. Or better yet, The Caesar Salad Network.

And, most interestingly, I think we'll see traditional media stars making the leap into self-produced video.

Laporte has proven that the money can be there without the studios. If even half of the rhetoric that creative types spout off about the need for "freedom" is true, there's no good reason why a semi-famous face from traditional TV wouldn't want to make the leap into a Laporte-style online venture.

Imagine a Howard Stern or a Bill Maher without any corporate masters to answer to. Or, better yet, imagine Joss Whedon creating something without having to worry about Fox stomping all over it.

I've seen the future and it's full of TWiTs.

Or ... maybe not. I'll be the first to admit that I'm pretty quick to jump onto any new fad that looks even remotely like something I might have read about in a science fiction book (I was convinced that TEN was the future of online gaming and that Hypercolor was the future of temperature sensitive clothing).

I could be wrong, though. Maybe Hulu is the web's equivalent of the DuMont network and we'll all be watching traditional TV on our computers. I realize that I'm blinded by both my Laporte fandom and my hope that the future of the internet is going to bring us something altogether different than the broadcasting model that brought us I Love Money 2.

Just do me a favor and check out what Laporte is doing and report back here. Is it the future? Or would we all be better off with the supervolcano?

[Note: Marmot pointed out in the comments that Laporte does not broadcast from his basement, but, rather, from a leased commercial space near his home. Now if someone could crowdsource me the winner in Sunday's Eagles/Giants game, I'd appreciate that as well!]

Jay Black is a writer and comedian who's best known as the cardboard cut-out that convinced millions of people that there was a "ghost" in "Three Men and a Baby". For more information or to check out one of his live shows, visit www.jayblackcomedy.com.

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Chris Howell

This comment thread is great. I'm getting ready to launch a YouTube channel featuring 5 minute episodes of auto racing news. I too have been watching Laporte since ZDTV (1998?). He is good but the video he's doing now is basically "radio on video". Similar to the old Howard Stearn show or the Don Imus MSNBC show. What makes it compelling is the personalities involved. It works great and is entertaining whether it's on radio (audio) or TV (video). Who remembers Leo's co-host on the Screen Savers, Kate Botello? Her on-air personality was stellar. Oh, by the way I have 10 year's experience in radio news so that helps to form a good show from the outset.

January 22 2009 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Re the Joss Whedon comment... Have you not seen Dr Horrible's Sing-along-blog?

January 09 2009 at 11:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe Magennis

Isn't the headline a mistake? Why is Leo Laporte the future of TV .. it's not TV, that's a one way broadcast medium disseminating content to impassive viewers.

Leo is building a community of individuals who participate, help to guide his programming ... deliver real ROI for his sponsors and collaborate for mutual benefit.

He is the future of media, but not the future of TV.

January 09 2009 at 10:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


I hear every podcast he and Kevin (Digg) has ever done. I remember the TechTv days - it was what made me switch to directv (because Comcast didn't air the channel).

I was shocked the channel failed and that they mushed it into G4 (what a pile of crap). It's ALMOST better in a way that they are on their own. ALMOST. I really liked the feeling of picking up the remote and hearing callers call into Leo's show to ask questions about their modems or power books. It was my quiz show that I played along with. It gave me a feeling of vindication that my interests had their own channel.

Still to this day there are so many channels - but nothing for the wired. Yet we have the INTERNET ~ something much more vast than the silly TV.

LEO - if you are reading this - thank you. Thanks for what your have done, for the entertainment. For making me think of my days in Walnut Creek during the tech bubble. For the continued joy of knowing that there are people in this world that understand that ANYONE can have their own show - and that actually getting up and doing it is 90% of the challenge.

January 08 2009 at 8:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've been a fan of Leo for years. I called into his old radio talkshow when he was a local personality and chatted with him and John C. Dvorak about OS/2 back in the day. He presented a talk about podcasting at our PacIT Pros user group in San Francisco just before launching his TWiT network (before it even had that name). I subscribe to many of his shows now, along with lots of others. The world of podcasting (or netcasting, as Leo calls it) is exploding with excitement and new ventures every few weeks.

Lots of people in the comments are mentioning some other similar web-based entertainment ventures, so I might as well plug one of my favorites.

Reason Magazine (Free Minds and Free Markets) has launched http://www.reason.tv to present their own unique content on the web. They produce short video podcasts, longer form talk shows and streaming live events to discuss news, politics, social movements and vital issues of concern to all of us. They produced live webcasts to provide running commentary on the presidential debates as well as live election night coverage last November 4.

Originally hosted by Drew Carey (who still presents a lot of their programs), Reason.TV is more than just an extension of the magazine. It is slick, professionally produced and _uncensored_ news and political analysis that cannot be found anywhere else on the web.

Also, Boxee.tv is another fascinating experiment to combine music, art, podcasting and traditional television with social networking all in a Linux/Mac/Windows media center platform. It is only in alpha testing phase now, but the potential for this tool is astonishing. Just wait until it launches a bigger, more ambitious beta program.

Just beg me for an invite.

January 08 2009 at 7:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Speaking of his community of listeners, you might want to mention that he's also got over 72,000 followers on Twitter just 15,000 shy of Kevin Rose.

January 08 2009 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Leo took a HUGE leap of faith trying the live video format. Most of his guests were taking bets on how long he was going to last...Question though, did you mention Chris Pirillo or Bwana in this post? They were doing this way before Leo...


January 08 2009 at 4:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Scott Schablow

I can't believe you didn't also mention Garyvee (Gary Vaynerchuck). http://garyvaynerchuk.com/ His show about wine Wine Library TV has become huge and he's been interviewed on tons of network TV shows. I'm a big fan of his. Watch and you'll see he has a very unique style.

January 08 2009 at 2:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I Like Leo and as long as the "Shut-ins" are as competent as he is, I welcome the move to this paradigm. I believe there is a middle ground between the two extremes you cited. Check out Revision3 Tekzilla and Systm specifically. This group, like Leo, came from TechTV. Every one involved would be doing this whether they were paid or not. This is a hobby they were lucky enough to turn into a carreer. By banding together they can afford slightly higher production capabilities than are available in your basement.

January 08 2009 at 2:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although I do enjoy Leo Laporte's show, I would hardly call him the future of internet television.

I only watch Leo after TheStream.TV shuts down for the night. It's an actual network of shows, one man called Brian Gramo sets up and produces 6 to 12 different sets for programs a week and has them broadcasting live over 4 syndicates.

Leo has been doing this for about a year, Gramo has been doing it for over two, and pulling in some rather high caliber guests like Zachary Quinto from Heroes and Star Trek.

And while Laporte's niche market of tech and tech-savvy is intriguing. TheStream.TV has a variety of topics and genres, including talk shows, dog grooming, filmmaking, video games, alternative music, writing AND unlike Laporte's program, every episode is live and interactive, taking phonecalls, emails, and instant messages on the spot.

Although Leo Laporte is a talented individual, everyone is sleeping on TheStream.TV -- that website is headed places, guaranteed.

January 08 2009 at 1:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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