Cable Operators

On VOD, Exclusively

11/21/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts recently said he expects the company’s subscribers to download 1 billion TV shows via its video-on-demand service in 2005.

The nation’s largest MSO took more steps in that direction last week, further spreading its VOD wings with content exclusives and premieres across several programming platforms.

  • In a first for a Viacom Inc.-owned channel, the kid-targeted Noggin will premiere a holiday special through Comcast’s free VOD platform, two weeks before it airs on the network;

  • Sports fans accessing Comcast’s free VOD service can now tap into a new exclusive game-highlights package from the National Basketball Association, under a new carriage deal;

  • And next week, music buffs will be able to access a more robust offering of videos from Music Choice through a pact that will later spawn interactive applications.

Speaking at the Independent Research Group TV On-Demand Summit conference in New York on Nov. 1, Roberts said users are already downloading about 50 million VOD programs per month in Comcast systems. Labeling his prediction “aggressive,” Roberts said, “I think we will do a billion television shows to our customers that will not be watched live” in 2005.

Comcast currently has about 1,000 shows available on its free-VOD service, a total that is expected to rise by 3,000 by year-end.

That’s en route to 4,000 next year, when the MSO begins offering library fare from Sony Corp. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. Comcast was part of a consortium led by Sony earlier this year that agreed to buy MGM for about $4.5 billion.

Presumably new content from Noggin, the NBA and Music Choice will help push Comcast toward its ambitious VOD goals.

NOGGIN MOVIE DEBUT

The premiere of Franklin’s Magic Christmas is part of a major holiday-themed “Warm and Fuzzy” programming and marketing campaign. The two parties created the effort to increase awareness of the network and of VOD.

Comcast will debut the one-hour original movie on its kids-targeted VOD package Nov. 29, and make it available exclusively to its approximately 13 million VOD-enabled subscribers through Dec. 13, when it bows on Noggin, according to MTVN president of affiliate sales and marketing, Nicole Browning.

The show will air as part of Noggin’s five-hour VOD package, which includes episodes of such Noggin series as Oobi. In addition to Franklin’s Magic Christmas, the platform will also feature other holiday-oriented episodes of such Noggin staples as Miffy, Connie the Cow and Tiny Planets, although only Franklin will be exclusive to VOD.

The ability to debut content is a key component toward providing greater value for Comcast’s VOD service.

“This is typical of what’s starting to happen in VOD, which is our programming partners like Noggin are seeing on demand as a great promotional opportunity for some of their strong programming,” said Comcast vice president of marketing for new video products Page Thompson. “In general, we look at this type of programming to help differentiate VOD from the [digital video recorder] — this is programming that you can’t record on a DVR, because it hasn’t aired.”

Neither Browning nor Thompson would estimate how many subscribers would access Franklin’s Magic Christmas. But Browning hopes the VOD play will spur more viewership of the linear network.

“Certainly ratings on the linear network would be important to use as well as any spike in usage” of Noggin VOD programming.

To help market the movie and holiday themed programming, the network has placed promotional materials on “The Fan,” Comcast’s Fan broadband consumer portal, including a short movie premiere trailer promoting the Franklin film, Thompson said.

Noggin has created cross-channel spots featuring Noggin characters Moose A. Moose and Zee. It’s also sending out mailers and e-mail notices to promote kids and family viewing.

The two parties have also created a nine-city “Warm and Fuzzy Mall Tour” tour that will hit such cities as Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C., from Nov. 30 through Dec. 18.

If the VOD experiment proves successful, Noggin would “contemplate” offering other programs for premiere on VOD with Comcast in the near future, Browning said. The network has talked with Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable about potential VOD tests as well, she added.

SPORTS ADDITIONS

Comcast has also boosted its growing VOD sports offerings with a daily highlights package from the NBA.

Launched two weeks ago and slated to run until the league’s February All-Star break, Comcast VOD subscribers with access to diginet NBA TV can receive daily two- to three-minute video highlights of each of the prior day’s games, a 10- to 18-minute compilation highlight reel, and a top-10 plays of the day video, according to league.

In addition, the League will offer several original series for 30 days, including NBA TV: Over Time and the reality series Real Training Camp.

The NBA package is performing “extremely well,” Thompson said, although he would not reveal specific numbers.

The pro-hoops package joins a similar offering of weekly National Football League game highlights and a college-football package that offers replays of entire games, 10- to 15-minute recaps, and half-hour weekly coaches’ shows from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference.

While the sports VOD offerings were initially set up to offer real-time encoding of a full-length college sports or professional-team telecast, Thompson said the highlight packages have struck a chord with subscribers.

The NFL package remains one of the most popular packages on Comcast’s free VOD platform, according to Thompson.

“With these highlights, we’re starting to finding out the secret of what people really want in sports on demand,” he said. “We’re really excited about how all of this is doing — we’ve now created a package that has strong content for sports fans.”

MUSIC VIDEO CHOICES

Comcast also seeks to strike the right VOD note with music-video fans, through a recently signed deal with digital-audio purveyor Music Choice.

The agreement gives Comcast access to a myriad of videos for its on-demand business. The deal also includes provisions for interactive applications, including the creation of audio/video playlists for broadband subscribers.

Although some in the music industry question the depth of its library, given rights issues, Music Choice president and CEO David Del Beccaro said the company’s catalog extends to thousands of videos in an array of genres.

Subscribers can use their TV remote or computer mouse to click the 'videos’ button on the different Music Choice channels and select from a variety of music videos listed by current artist, genre or via the Music Choice Top 10, he said. They can pick one video or build an entire playlist that will play the songs in the order in which they’re requested.

At press time, Comcast was expected to “launch hundreds of music videos” across a variety of genres, before the end of November. Moving forward, that number will ramp up considerably as Comcast “taps a very, very large library,” Thompson said.

Comcast is also “looking forward to working with the labels through Music Choice,” he said. “Our interest is in pushing fresh, exclusive videos.”

Comcast has high hopes for Music Choice on an on-demand basis, as music is already one of the MSO’s leading categories.

“It’s definitely top five, up there with children’s and NFL Network,” he said. “And that’s with a limited music selection.”

Comcast’s current music-on-demand offerings include a branded 75-video package from Fuse that’s refreshed weekly, content from Great American Country and some alternative product, among other entries.

Thompson declined to specify Comcast’s ITV plans with Music Choice, other than to say, “We’re working on some opportunities.”

On the broadband side, a Comcast spokeswoman said the customized audio and video playlist content would likely be available on the Comcast High-Speed Internet Portal (www.comcast.net) by year-end.

For its part, Mediacom Communications Corp. plans a video expansion of the My Music Choice audio-only service it has been offering in Moline, Ill. this year.

March