MEDIA: Digital Duo: it takes two to make a tech review right Looking for an unbiased forum to have your tech product reviewed? Try PBS’s Digital Duo, a smart and witty team of journalists who enjoy giving the latest gadgets a total workout. Claire

Judging by the amount of e-mail sent to TV show Digital Duo, its two hosts have a following that could fill the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

Judging by the amount of e-mail sent to TV show Digital Duo, its two hosts have a following that could fill the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

Judging by the amount of e-mail sent to TV show Digital Duo, its

two hosts have a following that could fill the Pasadena Rose Bowl.

The reason? Digital Duo, seen on Public Broadcasting Service stations,

helps educate legions of viewers who admit they are tested by technology

and generally lost in cyberspace. Framingham, MA-based ZMedia, which

produces the show, receives 200 e-mails a week from a collection of

viewers whose demographics include both geeks and grandmas.

The program was conceived by ZMedia’s Steve DePaul, who is also a

director on ABC’s NYPD Blue. DePaul got the idea when he sought out

advice on which CD-Rom he should buy for his son. He certainly didn’t

find any on TV. ’We wanted to produce a show where there were no

barriers and no base of knowledge necessary,’ says Digital Duo’s

executive producer Dennis Allen.

The show covers such subjects as how to clean your screen and the best

bags for carrying laptops. A recent installment shined a light on

technical support lines, whose only advice often is, ’Have you tried

rebooting?’ In their reviews, the two hosts, Steve Manes and Susan

Gregory Thomas, give products a ’save’ or ’delete.’

One episode saw the duo comparing the latest VCRs. The two gave an

explanation about how the machines operate, but went on to question

manufacturers’ claims. PR execs were no-doubt cringing to hear such

comments as ’It’s moronic ... And this aspect is a major


In another episode, the duo poured water on and threw a bowling ball at

a laptop to test the maker’s claims about the unit’s ruggedness. The

result? It continued to function with water in the keyboard and a

cracked LCD screen. That’s when PR pros come up trumps.

The viewers, however, love such brutality. ’It’s nice to see a program

that isn’t just a front for pushing a company’s products,’ read one

viewer’s e-mail. Manes, a former New York Times writer who now works for

Forbes and PC World, explains that being tough on some makes the praise

of others more credible. ’We’ll say negative things about XYZ and we’ll

also talk about the good things. It carries weight and people regard it

as objective.’

Manes and his co-host may be giving PR pros serious heartburn, but that

has not dissuaded the likes of industry titans Microsoft and Sony from

sending them material (though Manes says some PR pros have tried to

prevent the team from reviewing their goods).

Manes, who works in Seattle, certainly has the credentials to speak with

authority on the show’s subject. He has covered the computer industry

since 1982 and co-wrote the 1994 book Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul

Reinvented an Industry - and Made Himself the Richest Man in


Thomas joined the show recently, replacing The Wall Street Journal’s

Walter Mossberg, who has scaled back his duties. Mossberg does remain,

however, an Andy Rooney-esque commentator for the show. With her bubbly

personality, Thomas gives the show a younger feel. ’When Steve asked me

if I wanted to replace Walter Mossberg, I nearly dropped dead,’ she


’Steve and Walter were two idols of mine.’ Thomas is based in New York

and writes about technology for US News & World Report and New


A pitch directed to any one of these journalists could earn you either a

rough ride or a favorable comment in any number of media. Manes and

Thomas have virtually full editorial control of the show and converse

regularly on potential subjects. ’We have had a lot of people ask us

about cable modems and DSL,’ says Manes. ’Other people have asked us if

they should build their own computers.’

Executive producer Allen advises that pitches be sent to the reporters

at the magazines they write for. But when dealing with these two

interpreters of the hi-tech world, you’d better not use the fax; they

both prefer e-mail. If you’re sending a huge file, Manes pleads that you

call him first and ask permission. He recalls how one Microsoft PR

executive passed a virus onto his computer.

Thomas reminds PR pros to keep their pitches restricted to consumer

products: ’The show doesn’t cover business-to-business. It’s geared

toward home office and small business.’

Manes says that given its production schedule, the show can’t

accommodate breaking news. The half-hour program is recorded in batches

of four or six in a Boston studio and thus needs PR pros to think about

timeless items.

Manes is eager to get word of new products in advance and will agree to

embargoes to do so. However, because of the consumer-oriented nature of

the series, he doesn’t want material that is light-years away from

hitting the shelves.

Executive producer Allen advises PR pros not to send video, but rather

the products themselves so the show can record its own material. And

there is no point in suggesting guest speakers either; the show is

entirely fronted by the three journalists. But that situation may change

- Manes says the team is considering going on the road, filming from

trade conferences such as Comdex. Digital Duo has just wrapped for the

season, but next year’s production planning will start up again in the

new year.

The show’s web site, which carries video clips of reviews from the show,

is also attracting crowds, recording 30,000 visits a day. Part of the

attraction might be the give-aways courtesy of PR pros across the


The team can’t accept gifts and so decided to give them away - along

with promotional items such as bathroom tissue, mugs and even dog

biscuits - to people who e-mail in.

Allen says when the show was first conceived, he felt public TV was the

only place it could exist. ’We wanted it to be free of industry

influence,’ he explains. However, much of public TV requires some kind

of sponsorship and ZMedia agreed to work with three underwriters:

Alcatel, and E*trade. Part of the agreement is that

Digital Duo will not cover these companies on the program. With these

two, that could be either a blessing or a curse.


Digital Duo ZMedia/Wave

11 California Ave.

Framingham, MA 01701-8869

Tel: (508) 626 9900, x3353

Fax: (508) 620 6275

Web site:


Executive producer: Dennis Allen

Co-executive producer: Sherry Laser

Hosts/journalists: Stephen Manes, Susan Gregory Thomas

Contributor: Walter Mossberg.

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