Win Some, Lose Some

8/04/2006 8:04 PM Eastern

Nielsen Media Research announced late this spring that it would be developing a means to rate on-demand programming, just as it does linear TV. But service providers aren’t waiting for the first results from that ratings system — which began measuring content July 31 — to start spotting patterns of what works and doesn’t work in video-on-demand programming. And that information is already being used to shape the VOD content picture.

One area that appears to be striking a chord with on-demand users is music. Time Warner Cable figures indicate music constitutes 24% of the operator’s total on-demand content usage, and Comcast On Demand has received a similar response to its Music Choice on-demand offering.

Within the genre, several on-demand channels, including Concert Network and Havoc, have drawn strong on-demand viewership.

Those music channels “have actually been very successful on the on-demand platform, generating hundreds of thousands of views every month,” said Page Thompson, Comcast Corp. senior vice president and general manager of video services.


Another big area of on-demand success is children’s programming. Comcast On Demand offers content from PBS’s Sprout, as well as titles from Nickelodeon, and both draw strong viewership, Thompson said.

One reason children’s content seems to be working is that Internet-savvy kids are used to and like to access content on demand. But the big reason is that parents use VOD to give themselves a break, when they need to keep kids occupied.

“It’s great to have access to the kids’ favorite programs, whether it is Bob the Builder or [Go, Diego, Go!] or whatever,” Thompson said. “A lot of parents are using on demand as a reward now. 'You can watch Diego if you clean up all of your toys,’ and things like that.”

It also helps that the on-demand children’s programming is particularly strong, with popular fare including Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer and Thomas the Tank Engine.

“We literally have all of the biggest brands in kids’ television, and we are going to continue to make that offering bigger and bigger,” Thompson said. “It is as true on demand as it is in linear TV — great content drives usage.”

The popularity of the genre is also luring other content providers, including Starz Encore Group.

“We look at the numbers, and we are sort of saying 'OK, now how can we do more in that category?’ which is what our on-demand group under [vice president of on-demand] Bill Hoagland is trying to do in the future,” said Jerry Maglio, Starz Encore’s executive vice president of marketing.


Even as on-demand expands to include music and television shows, its original content vehicle — movies — continues to be a strong draw.

For Starz, the numbers are convincing. Based on viewership numbers supplied by its cable operator partners, Starz On Demand claims the longest average viewing time of all on-demand providers, averaging more than 60 minutes per viewing, according to Maglio.

In overall content viewed, Starz on Demand comes in at third place, while Encore on Demand is fourth, Maglio said. That proves that movies are on the top of the heap when it comes to on-demand viewing, he said.

In the second quarter this year, Comcast On Demand pay-per-view programming including movies was up 30%. Similarly, in the first quarter movies comprised 15% of the content streams for Time Warner Cable.

“We have had tremendous success with free movies — I think we are doing something around 18 million views a month on free movies,” Thompson said. “When we put all of this content in a category and we called it Free Movies, and we put the movies A to Z and arranged them by category, usage really, really took off.”

There also have been a few surprise hits for Comcast On Demand, most notably its novel Karaoke On Demand service, which provides a lineup of popular tunes viewers can then sing along with, complete with scenes on their TV screens. It is ranked in the top 15 of all on-demand content sources for Comcast, and it generates between 2.2 million to 3 million views a month.

“With Karaoke, your television actually becomes an in-house Karaoke machine,” Thompson said. “So it’s really just making your whole TV experience better and different with the on-demand technology.”

Starz, meanwhile, has seen strong viewership within a category of shorts and animated fare dubbed “Quickies.” One example of that is its series of 40-second cartoons in which animated bunnies act out the plotline of theatricals such as Brokeback Mountain.

So far the Bunnies shorts have generated about 7 million views through the on-demand service since their April 2005 debut. Starz also attaches the Bunnies shorts in front of movies as a sort of trailer for upcoming new or related title releases, and so far that has generated another 5 million views.

“They are great, and our customers love them,” Maglio said.


But not all on-demand content is faring as well as Bunnies and children’s fare. Among the misfires, according to Thompson, is sports content.

Comcast initially believed that sports would do well on demand; but aside from some successes, such as NFL football games and fitness programming from Exercise TV, the original strategy to provide video of entire games generated lukewarm viewership, Thompson said.

“But then we went back and designed a model for sports we think is the right model, which is more like highlights — 10-minute Tour de France highlights the next day,” Thompson said. “So sports continues to do well, but perhaps not as well as we might have expected. And I think that’s the biggest [lesson] about on demand: there are certain things that the true fans want to watch live.”

Similarly, news has been a problematic category. Thompson notes that availability of online news wires and news services makes on-demand news content a challenge, and “that area perhaps can’t add as much value.”

One exception is larger news events, such as the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions. Working with the Comcast Media Center, Starz took raw footage from the conventions and broke it up into individual speeches from political heavyweights.

That way, viewers could tap into the campaign rhetoric of interest rather than sit through video of the entire event or relying on nightly roundups on linear news broadcasts.

“I think that’s really the way news will work on demand on the entire platform,” Thompson said. “So they don’t exactly get the news of the event but they get the depth of information on it.”

Starz has also had its non-starters, including movies in a category that programmers have dubbed “the long tail” — content that only appeals to a tiny portion of the viewing audience, or content well off the latest-release window.

Although the Bunnies cartoons have been popular, other animated features didn’t do so well on demand. Similarly, movie-related and behind-the-scenes VOD segments disappointed.

“We found in general some of the [celebrity] interviews we were packaging on the on-demand platform just didn’t get picked,” Maglio added. “So we’ve moved away from them, and we’ve moved away from some of the 'making of’ pieces that work well in linear but just don’t work in on-demand.”

Starz also didn’t have much success with a collection of Spanish-language videos.

“We don’t know yet for sure why it didn’t work, but we tried it and it didn’t work,” Maglio said. “So we’re not doing it in the future.”

Still, programmers are not surprised that some misses inevitably accompany the hits as they continue to evolve their on-demand strategies.

“Because we are pushing the envelope, we fully expect to have things that will work and won’t work,” Maglio said. “But what’s interesting is, you can run with your winners, and you just jettison what didn’t work.”

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