ADD HOST, SELL VOD

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When it comes to selling video-on-demand programming, cable operators and other distributors could learn a thing or two from hotel movie vendor On Command Corp.

Case in point: Adding an attractive on-air host to a video-on-demand channel tends to keep the viewer glued to the television, and improves the chances that he or she will order a VOD movie.

While selling VOD content is a relatively new business for cable operators, On Command, which is owned by Liberty Media Corp., has been selling VOD movies to hotel guests nationwide for nearly 20 years. Until three years ago, On Command sold movies by running non-stop film previews on the channel hotel guests saw every time they turned on the TV.

In 2002, the company reformatted the interface and added Tricia Singer, an attractive blonde who pitches the movies from red-carpet ceremonies or inside the studio.

Singer’s delivery, which is similar to that of entertainment reporters from programs like Access Hollywood, has paid off. Hotel guests who used to change the barker channel as soon as they turned on the TV now spend five to six minutes watching Singer pitch movies — an increase of 400%, according to On Command chief marketing officer Tad Walden.

VOD-movie revenue in the hotels using the new barker channel has increased 11% with the addition of Singer, according to Walden, who had first hired her when he worked at the now defunct PrimeStar Inc. for that satellite-TV firm’s pay-per-view channel.

“In subsequent research that we’ve done, the guests recall this lady on the TV telling them about what’s available, and they like that,” Walden said.

On most cable systems, VOD channels now resemble the old On Command barker channel.

Most of the screen on systems run by Time Warner Cable and other operators consists of text menus that list movies by genre, with a window in the corner featuring movie previews that run in a loop.

But Comcast Corp. has incorporated an on-air host into its main VOD channel, using talent from E! Entertainment Television to pitch various movies.

Comcast often sees a spike in usage from VOD programs pitched by the E! host, compared to other programs in its library, a source said.

The Comcast previews run on a 10-to-15-minute loop.

Comcast also plans to force-tune customers to a channel that will contain the new version of its interactive program guide — another tactic On Command has used for years.

The MSO plans to launch the new force-tuned guide on two systems this summer, followed by a six-month rollout to systems nationwide.

Walden said On Command has received fewer complaints from hotel guests about being forced-tuned to the barker channel since it replaced the old barker channel with the shows hosted by Singer.

It will be up to Comcast to decide whether or not it adds an on-air host to its new main menu channel, but the cable industry can gain some knowledge from hotel distributors such as On Command, said Gerard Kunkel, president of GuideWorks, the joint venture between Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., which is developing the new IPG.

“I think they’ve come up with some very nice navigation methods that we and others should look at — not copy, but understand what works well in the eyes of consumers,” Kunkel said.

Adding an on-air host to VOD channels might also help multichannel-video distributors sell more adult content.

Playboy Television cut a deal earlier this year with ITV vendor OpenTV Corp. to build a virtual channel which would be hosted by a Playboy Playmate.

“Really what this is about is taking the virtual channel, hosted by a spectacularly gorgeous Playmate, who is explaining to the customers what is on Playboy Television, and also explaining how they can use the self-provisioning functionality of their remote control to get Playboy TV [the linear channel] as they’re watching,” said Playboy Entertainment Group president James Griffiths.

None of Playboy’s cable and satellite distributors have launched the virtual channel, but Playboy executives said they expect to secure distribution for it.

If new technology in hotel rooms is a harbinger for what will come on cable, cable distributors might eventually be selling movies subscribers could download to their computers. Walden said On Command is considering rolling out a new service that would allow hotel guests to download movies to their laptop computers. That way the movies could be viewed in the hotel room, or on the plane trip home.

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