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WWF Grapples with Model For Subscriber Broadband

7/08/2001 8:00 PM Eastern

World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. plans to join other programmers in testing subscription delivery of broadband content over high-speed modems later this year.

Gerry Louw, the CTO of WWFE's new-media division, said the company would "probably" launch an Internet-based video-on-demand pilot by year's end. "We want to do a subscription service," he said.

Content providers with loyal audiences are increasingly looking to launch subscription Web services for broadband users. ESPN went public with its broadband-content plans at the National Show.

Louw said the WWFE would make nonexclusive deals with cable MSOs, digital-subscriber-line providers and other broadband suppliers. Louw said the WWF's popular content can help operators sell more modems.

"If you don't provide broadband content, all [consumers] are getting is a faster Web page," he said.

The WWF operates one of the more successful broadband content sites, tied to its pay-per-view and television franchise. It counts a worldwide online audience of 8.1 million, half of whom are international visitors. In April 2001, WWFE distributed 8.4 million video streams, compared to 7.1 million a year earlier.

Even more telling is the spike in visits from users with broadband connections. In April, the number of streams served at 100 kilobits per second or higher reached 53 percent — the first time usage surpassed 50 percent, Louw said. In April of 2000, only 33 percent of all streams were sent out over 100-kilobit-per-second connections.

The average visitor spends 20 minutes at wwf.com and views eight streams that average 60 seconds in length. Although traffic is fairly even throughout the month, Louw said spikes usually occur during its basic-cable and broadcast-network shows on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights.

The WWF's Web site is part of the company's new-media division. Today's streaming content is free. The site generates revenue from WWFShopZone, its electronic-commerce service, and from advertising and sponsorships.

Revenue from new media is lumped with that generated in the company's TV and consumer-products division, Louw said.

WWF presently streams content only in Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player format, though it's talking with Real Networks Inc. and Apple Computer Corp. about supporting their popular streaming formats as well.

Unlike other content providers, WWFE doesn't distribute its content to edge servers. It instead uses Level 3 Communications Inc. for network provisioning, serving all its streams from two network operation centers in New York City.

"We use a unicast model," Louw said, adding that Level 3 has strong peering arrangements with regional and local Internet-service providers to distribute traffic to end users.

"We do that because it's our most effective model," Louw said. "It costs money to use edge-streaming servers. We want to keep reasonable quality at the lowest cost."

WWF uses Media Services, a U.K.-based company, for content management, Cisco Systems Inc. for routers and servers from Compaq Computer Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Louw said the WWF is determining what content it would offer via a subscription service. One possibility is to shift over some of the content currently available for free. Another is to time-shift highlights from previous TV shows and PPV events via the service.

WWFE also is looking at gaming applications, Louw said. "We're reviewing partners now."

Several popular software titles have been built around various WWF wrestlers and PPV events.

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