Ensign Crusher vs. the video-game Borg

Former "Star Trek" star Wil Wheaton was the main attraction on G4, the fast-rising video-game TV network. Until he quit, embroiling the network in a 21st century "Quiz Show" scandal.

Published May 8, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

With a programming schedule ranging from gossip to game shows, all of it devoted to the video game industry, cable giant Comcast's G4 Media Network was launched with the promise of becoming the Playstation generation's answer to the E! network. Just as the popular game shows of the 1950s were rocked by a scandal over the rigging of "The $64,000 Question," however, the fledgling gamers' network now faces its own "Quiz Show" scandal, surrounding the video game show "Arena."

Wil Wheaton, the show's original host -- best known for playing Ensign Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- left "Arena" last December, alleging a web of deceptions perpetrated on both him and the viewing audience as well as mistreatment of the show's contestants by its producers. "There is a culture of dishonesty and hubris at G4 that would make an ambulance-chasing lawyer cringe," Wheaton wrote in a recent Slashdot.org journal entry explaining his reasons for leaving "Arena" despite being G4's most popular personality.

Launched in May 2002 after a full week of broadcasting a continuous game of Pong, G4 is the first 24-hour network devoted to video games and the people who play them. The channel is currently available in 9 million homes, but its market share continues to expand as its parent company, Comcast, consolidates its place as America's largest cable provider after the recent purchase of AT&T's broadband division.

Comcast also owns and operates E!, and has patterned G4 after the celeb-gossip channel. While the audience for true Hollywood stories may be content to ogle a drug-addled Anna Nicole or absorb a Joan Rivers rant about Grammy fashions, G4's viewers are connected, in-tune and online. This has caused problems for the network, which has never seemed to grasp how important the free flow of information and instant feedback is to its target audience.

"There's a big intersection between the gamer and the 'Star Trek' community," Wil Wheaton says during a recent telephone interview as he prepares for a Southern California Trek convention. "I know from being a part of 'Star Trek' for 15 years that these people know everything about this subculture that they're a part of. They resent it tremendously when some group comes in and tries to exploit their passion. I've always been a geek. I still am. I play the games that they buy."

Travis Oates was Wheaton's co-host on the show "Arena." "One of the biggest problems at the network," Oates says, "was that you had people who knew computer games or video games but knew nothing about television and people who knew about television but knew nothing about computer games. The two worlds never met up with each other. I think what you're seeing with this is that Hollywood mentality that the viewing audience is stupid and nothing that they could do really has any effect.

"The cable channel has got a slew of problems," Oates continues, "because there are really terrible people that are in some key positions there."

Wheaton and Oates are both members of the Acme Comedy Theatre, a Los Angeles improv group. Oates started at G4 as a writer and recommended Wheaton to some producers at the network when he learned they were looking for a celebrity to serve as a game-show host.

Oates described the show's concept to Wheaton and got his attention. "I was actually more interested in being a writer than the on-camera stuff," says Wheaton. "I had a couple of meetings with [G4 executives] and I was hired in the first couple of weeks of January 2002."

Oates was originally a writer and host of the video game secrets show "Cheats," but moved to "Arena" to join Wheaton as his co-host due to their shared experience as improv performers. The duo provided tongue-in-cheek play-by-play commentary as teams of gamers in the relative safety of LAN networks and leather office chairs blew the bejesus out of each other across the simulated landscapes of such shooter games as "Unreal Tournament" and "Counter Strike."

Wheaton and Oates' humorous approach to the material rapidly won G4's biggest fan following. But their honeymoon was practically nonexistent as they realized that everything wasn't as it seemed at the network.

"The first two episodes were completely faked," Wheaton admits. "That didn't bother us because we all knew that this was just proof of concept." He says he and Oates believed viewers would never see the staged episodes. "They were going to be pulled out of rotation, but they still show them today."

"We knew that the first two episodes were going to be faked," Oates confirms, "but I didn't know that they were going to air and that we were going to treat them as if they were real episodes, which they did."

In fairness, "Arena" never depicted its participants as playing for prizes or cash. But the show was always presented as two teams of human players competing against one another, and that wasn't always the case. Producers often used bots, or computerized players run by artificial intelligence, as contestants. "Arena's" small but active audience started raising questions about the show's veracity on G4's message boards as well as on computer game news sites such as Slashdot.

Both Wheaton and Oates were active on the G4 message boards, interacting directly with viewers. After noticing several postings asking whether bots were passed off as human players on "Arena," they asked their producer Jim Downs what to tell their fans.

"He told me to lie to them," Wheaton says, recalling the incident. "I said, 'I'm not doing that, but somebody's going to have to handle this and it's not going to be me.'"

Downs is the producer of "Arena" and is also a correspondent on G4's news show "Pulse." He formerly hosted a show entitled "The All-Games Network," which was streamed on the Internet by the now-defunct media dot-com Pseudo. He declined to comment on any aspect of his working relationship with Wheaton and Oates.

Wheaton says that Downs' disrespect for the G4 audience extended to the network's coverage of video-game news. "Mike Tyson got into trouble again -- surprise! -- and some Tyson video game had just come out," Wheaton recalls. "We were having a production meeting talking about whether we were going to cover it in the news. A lot of people said, 'I don't want to cover that. Mike Tyson is offensive to me.' Several of us tried to make the point that just because you are offended by something doesn't mean that you don't cover it. Jim Downs said, 'This isn't real news. This is video games.'

"I began to see a relationship emerge [between] video game companies and the 'news' on G4," Wheaton adds. "Jim even said it wasn't journalism and we didn't need to be objective, which was really disturbing to me."

Wheaton's differences with G4 went higher than his immediate producer. A Comcast executive pulled the hugely popular game "Dead or Alive 3" from "Arena" because she was offended by the game's imagery of big-breasted, scantily clad young women fighting to the finish. "This was a hugely popular and relevant game," Wheaton says. "What if this person was offended by 'Unreal Tournament' or the new 'Star Wars' game? We were letting one person decide for our entire audience what they're going to see."

"We couldn't say the word 'suck' on the network," Oates adds.

Participants on G4's message boards soon noticed the absence of "Dead or Alive 3" and its battling bikini babes. At that time, Wheaton began to feel that the cable channel's disregard for its audience might actually damage his career by compromising his extraordinarily open relationship with his fans, which he maintains through his blogs and Web site. Things got worse, he says, when he saw the disrespectful treatment of "Arena" contestants by the show's producer and staff.

"Jim [Downs] treated the players with complete contempt like they didn't matter to him," Wheaton says. "He spoke about them really disdainfully. He had this really laissez-faire attitude towards the players, that they were lucky to be there and they should do what we told them to do."

Vinnie Longobardo, G4's senior vice president of programming, disputed this in a Slashdot response that bordered on unintentional comedy: "Regarding competitions, to the best of my knowledge, no participants were treated badly or with disrespect and never treated as though they were lucky to be competing on the show or to be getting free pizza."

But Travis Oates also says he witnessed poor treatment of "Arena" players: "He [Downs] treated the contestants badly. I mean, they got no prizes or anything. It was a mentality of, 'Well, they're on TV, so they should be happy that they're getting on TV.'"

When Microsoft paired with "Arena" to air the national championship of "Halo" (a popular game for Microsoft's Xbox platform), Wheaton decided to advocate for better treatment of the competitors. "It might just be a video game," he says, "but these kids were finalists in a national championship and I think that's a significant thing. There was one woman who got that and cared about the players, but that was about it. Everybody else treated them the way that you would treat extras in a movie."

Wheaton then says that he brought up his concerns over player treatment with Longobardo, who was Downs' direct supervisor. "I had a reputation that was important to me," Wheaton says. "I didn't want to be part of something if these players were going to leave here and go tell their friends that it sucked and G4 is a bunch of a-holes."

"There was obviously tension between the two of them [Downs and Wheaton]," Longobardo says from a speakerphone in the network's publicity office. "That kind of thing happens naturally in work environments -- particularly at start-ups where there is a lot more work and a lot of pressure."

Tensions only grew worse, says Wheaton, after his conversation with Longobardo. Wheaton says that Downs' response to his concerns was to "scream and yell at me and call me all kinds of names and then treat me like shit the whole rest of the time that I was there.

"Then he did this really stupid thing where my paycheck turned up the next week and it was cut by two-thirds."

Longobardo declined to address this question directly. "It was a personality conflict that was irresolvable," he says. "We made offers to change lots of different things in [Wheaton's] situation. I was hoping they would be able to work it out but Wil decided it was irresolvable and resigned."

"They still owe me $1,500," Wheaton claims.

So in December of last year Wheaton walked away from "Arena" and G4 lost its most bankable personality. "Wil was their only celebrity," Oates says. "Every article that was written about the network mentioned him. Every picture that came from the network had him in it. To turn a blind eye to that and just let him go boggles me."

"I think that it was just [Downs'] arrogance," Oates continues. "I think Jim believed that Wil was one of these sad celebrities who had no following."

Wheaton's disappearance from "Arena" created a P.R. problem that couldn't be papered over with some pat network press release. Fans on the message boards and discussion groups kept demanding an explanation. Characteristically, the former crew member of the Enterprise decided to give them one by posting his Slashdot journal entry recounting his final days at G4.

"I wasn't about to go pleading my case to the media," Wheaton says. "If I didn't have my weblog, there's a good chance that [G4 executives] would have been able to completely put out their version of events because they have the biggest and loudest voice. I never would have been able to say that the reason I quit the show was because they're lying to you and when I said, 'Stop lying to the audience,' they screamed and yelled at me."

Oates was fired by G4 soon after Wheaton left the network. He says he was dismissed for posting a message making clear that Wheaton wasn't returning to "Arena." Longobardo wouldn't address the situation with Oates directly, but says, "Some of the comments that were posted on the board were inappropriate, because essentially they were discussing the inner workings of G4, which contractually they are not really supposed to be doing."

"I wouldn't take what you read on the message boards as the gospel truth of what actually happened," Longobardo says of the message board fallout from Wheaton's departure. "It is filtered through other people's perceptions, who may not know everything that was going on."

When asked about online comments that Wheaton himself had made, Longobardo adds, "Wil's entitled to his opinion."

Jim Downs is now a supervising producer at G4 and oversees the production of four different shows including "Arena." Michael Louden, a British-born actor chosen to replace Wheaton, was fired from "Arena" on March 21. "Louden was very funny," Longobardo says, "but he didn't really know video games. We need someone who's a gamer for the show."

In a posting that is still up on G4's message boards, Louden jokes: "Maybe, billing ourselves as the ex-'Arena' hosts, Wil Wheaton and I can co-star in some bus and truck tour of 'The Odd Couple' hitting dinner theatres across this great land of ours."

Despite his sour experiences at G4, Wheaton still believes in the video game network's potential. "G4 fills a void," he says. "There's a huge market of people who play video games, computer games and platform games. There's absolutely an opportunity for that group of people to have their own television network.

"There are some terrific people that work at G4," Wheaton reflects. "I can't stress that enough. There are some fantastic writers and producers that love their shows and love games and love gamers. Sadly, I was not working on one of those shows."

By Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun is a longtime Salon contributor and the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor" (2013). Follow him on Twitter.

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