Comedy Central’s new stand-up comedy series, Live at Gotham, has averaged 300,000 viewers since its launch in March.
Not bad, considering the show has yet to air on the network.
Live at Gotham is playing exclusively on the network’s broadband video portal, Motherload. Not until June will it be shown on the Comedy Central channel, which reaches 88 million pay television subscribers.
Graduating an original series from the World Wide Web to a scheduled television channel would have been unthinkable just two years ago. But today’s broadband computer connection doesn’t deliver your daddy’s Internet any longer — or your older brother’s, for that matter.
Today’s cable network Web sites are no longer repositories for cute facts, figures and features promoting programming to be watched on a TV set.
They now feature constantly expanding amounts of video programming, which cable executives such as Comedy Central executive vice president Michele Ganeless and ESPN broadband general manager Tanya VanCourt said is necessary to gain and keep the attention of text-messaging, online game-playing, chat room-using viewers who want quality video as part of their Web experience.
“Today’s young people started off using personal computers very early in their lives, and now it’s just become a way of life for those coming of age today,” said VanCourt, who oversees the network’s ESPN360 broadband service. “They’ve trained the generation ahead of them to come up to speed quickly, as well.”
Networks are scrambling to keep pace. In the first six months of this year, The Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Channel; NBC Universal’s USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo; Discovery Channel; and A&E Network’s The History Channel all announced the launch of what could be called broadband channels, as opposed to television channels.
Each of these channels — which are encoded at more than 500 Kilobits per second, compared to the 48 Kbps of text-based sites — can only be effectively viewed through a high-speed Internet connection. But 84 million Americans now have such connections, up from 60 million a year ago, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
At last count, at least 34 cable networks are offering broadband video channels (see chart, page 20).
More are on the way. TV One is planning, for instance, to launch as many as four of these new video channels, which tend to deliver lots of short programs as a means to whet appetites for longer versions found on conventional TV.
The channels — focusing on gospel/inspiration, lifestyles, hip-hop and public affairs — will be designed to complement the scheduled programming on the African-American lifestyles network, which reaches 30 million households via cable systems and satellite, according to Brad Samuels, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for the two-year-old network.
“You want to be where your audience is going,” Samuels said.
Indeed, the growth and effectiveness of broadband technology is driving cable network content to the Internet.
“When you had a 28-Megahertz modem in 1999, you could not watch video,” said Lisa Gersh, president and chief operating officer of distaff-targeted network Oxygen, which launched its Oxygen.com in 1999. The site currently offers snippets and clips from such shows as Campus Life.
According to Pew, 42% of adults now have a high-speed phone or cable connection at home. But leading to the explosion in distribution of video over the Internet is a recognition that the next generation of video viewers click away on computers, at all hours.
“Today’s consumer is made up of 30-year-olds that grew up with technology — the Internet, playing Atari [video games], accessing computers in college,” VH1 vice president of digital media Tina Imm said. “These 30-year-olds have the means to purchase the technology and they’re incredibly busy, so [online video] is about convenience for them.”
Where audiences gather, advertisers follow. Advertisers have quickly embraced the video broadband marketplace, Oxygen’s Gersh said. All online advertising generated a record $12.5 billion in 2005, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. That was just 5% of all U.S. advertising revenue.
But in the first quarter of this year, online advertising grew 38%, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study for the bureau.
“That’s not to say that advertisers are leaving cable,” said Gersh, “but they want to be where their audience is.”
From a measurement perspective, the Internet has a clear advantage over cable. Network executives say the Internet’s ability to accurately and quickly provide viewership figures has advertisers smitten. Advertisers no longer have to guess whether all 3.4 million viewers who watched USA’s WWE Raw on May 29 tune into a particular ad. They can track it, viewer by viewer, act by act, click by click.
“On Oxygen I can only tell advertisers that many thousands and thousands of people saw your spot, but I can tell them that 100 people specifically clicked on your ad online,” said Gersh, who predicted video broadband ad revenue could represent 20% of the network’s overall advertising business in five years.
THE SHORT FORM
So what are networks serving up to Internet-savvy consumers? Mostly exclusive, short videos culled from existing television channels. Online users tend to want quick hits instead of 30-minute or one-hour series offered on cable networks, according to Gersh.
“Every platform is made to do different things — radio did one thing before television came along, which did another thing, but it didn’t blow up radio,” she said. “The broadband platform is the place for short-form programming, while most long-form content lives on television.”
The typical broadband show or clip averages between two and 10 minutes in length — enough to entice viewers to watch and move on to something else.
Much of that programming is an offshoot of popular cable network content. Can’t get enough of Battlestar Galactica? Sci Fi Channel’s new broadband Web site, called Pulse, will soon launch a portal for the series featuring original 10- to 15-minute “webisodes” that extend the show’s storyline beyond the popular series’ televised episodes.
Missed Nick Lachey’s performance on MTVs Total Request Live video-countdown show? Click onto MTV’s Overdrive broadband channel and see an extended version of the former Mr. Jessica Simpson’s appearance on the daily series.
Some networks are bucking the short-form trend. The Disney Channel beginning this month will deliver full-length episodes of such half-hour series as That’s So Raven and Kim Possible. Broadcast networks ABC and CBS are also offering full-length episodes of hour-long series Desperate Housewives and Survivor, respectively, via the Web.
Disney’s broadband play enhances the value of high-speed Internet services and often serves as a marketing tool for a television channel, said Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media for Disney-ABC Television.
But such moves have already raised the ire of distributors such as Time Warner Cable and DirecTV Inc., which have questioned the validity of paying a license fee to networks if full-episode content is offered free via the Internet.
Shifting full network programming to the Internet also may not be wise, since re-airings of top network shows tend to generate decent ratings, said BET Interactive senior vice president and COO Michael Pickrum. BET’s own broadband site BET On Blast offers snippets of original shows like College Hill but no full-length episodes of the reality skein.
“If you immediately put [a show] online after it airs, would that erode the cable experience, knowing that the expectation is that it will air on the cable network at a later date?” Pickrum asked.
Networks such as Comedy Central and ESPN are creating original, albeit short, “franchise series” for the Web. Comedy Central’s six-month-old Motherload has already announced as many as nine potential new original series, including Live at Gotham.
Among the online shows are Golden Age, an animated comedy profiling long-since retired cartoon characters; Odd Todd, based on an Internet cult character’s struggles to find employment; and Shadow Rock, an animated series that finds humor in deep, dark recesses of the human mind.
“In the past networks have used their broadband sites as promotional sites for their channel to show bloopers or behind-the-scenes footage,” Comedy’s Ganeless said. “We wanted to create a complimentary experience for the [conventional] channel that was specific to broadband that reflected the Comedy Central brand, but programming that’s built specifically for that format.”
ESPN360, the cable sports network’s broadband site, will put 52 live World Cup soccer matches online this summer. VanCourt said its mix of extended network programming fare like extra footage of SportsCenter interviews, along with exclusive live game and original series content — such as the animated comedy sports series Sketchy — provides sports fans with another outlet to satisfy their sports fix.
Not all sports fans have a ticket to ESPN360. ESPN is only offering ESPN360 to operators who pay an undisclosed licensing fee for the service. So while more than 90 million subscribers receive ESPN service on TV, only 8 million broadband users, who access the service through such distributors as Verizon Communications, Adelphia Communications Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., can receive ESPN360 content.
Still, VanCourt says the service will continue to air original content like live college sports events while it awaits distribution.
“We believe that it helps operators with their high-speed Internet distribution. We believe it helps them deliver value that their customers can’t get anyplace else,” she said.
TOO MUCH, ALREADY
With so many cable-branded broadband channels popping up, some network executives are already worried about getting lost amongst the millions of cyberspace destinations.
“My concern is that there’s too much for the audience to find,” said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick.
Bravo offers three video-rich sites: Outzone.com, targeted to the gay and lesbian communities; triotv.com, a broadband offshoot of the defunct pop-culture channel; and brilliantbutcancelled.com, which shows episodes from prematurely cancelled series .
What stands out? Quality programming that only you have. The Bravo site, for instance, is the exclusive source on the Web for an old series called “EZ Streets,’’ from Paul Haggis, now known for the Oscar-winning movie, “Crash.”
“We find the traffic builds when you give them something to see,” Zalaznick said.
In that regard, a world of multiplying broadband channels may not be that different from broadcast, cable and satellite television.
“As we’ve gone from three networks to four networks to 20 to hundreds of networks, people always find what they want,” Comedy Central’s Ganeless said. “On the Web, it’s the same thing — people will seek out what interests them.”
Who knows? Several years from now broadband could be the home for next breakout series like The Sopranos or Nip/Tuck. Right now, Comedy Central will be content if Live at Gotham, born on the Web, becomes its next big hit on television.