This could be the year when important, behind-the-scenes advancements occur toward gauging the ratings for "free" video-on-demand programming — a key step for basic programmers looking to monetize their VOD efforts.
"We are actively working with a couple of content partners and a third party company to put a [measurement] trial in place in the first quarter," Comcast Cable senior vice president of marketing Andy Addis said during a panel session at last month's Western Show. "We plan to measure and verify ad viewership in the on-demand space.
From there, steps could be taken to reconcile VOD viewership with linear viewership, "so there is an opportunity for increased ad sales," he said.
"Nielsen is looking at taking aggregate viewership numbers on linear TV and VOD," added ESPN vice president of interactive sales Matt Murphy.
So far, basic programmers have waded gingerly into the VOD waters. Most major cable networks don't have much on-demand product available, if any, although Comcast's recent deal with Viacom Inc. is a big breakthrough because MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon content is on its way to VOD.
Turner Broadcasting System Inc. has delivered a small amount of Cartoon Network and Cable News Network content to the on-demand platform.
There was initial concern that VOD watching would cut into linear viewing, against a backdrop in which little or no revenue was flowing back to the programmer.
But "the story on ratings has been very positive," said Kevin Cohen, Turner's senior vice president of interactive and enhanced TV.
Linear TV ratings have held steady or climbed for the same programs that appear on the VOD platform, he said. "There hasn't been any negative impact from VOD usage today."
Over time, usage of Cartoon's VOD content has been rising steadily. According to Turner analysis of data from Comcast's Eastern and Atlantic divisions from this past summer, total views per month of Boomerang product rose from 28,110 in May to 90,490 in June to 113,345 in July. Over the same time frame, views of Cartoon Network content jumped from 91,072 to 143,127 to 205,964, Cohen said.
The number of titles consumers accessed per month jumped from 2.3 in May to 3.7 in July for Boomerang and from 4.1 in May to 4.9 in July for Cartoon.
Unsurprisingly, usage spiked on the weekends, with Sunday garnering the most viewing, Cohen said.
Some programs are more popular on VOD than they are on linear TV. Samurai Jack
is Cartoon Network's fourth-best performing original program on air, and it outdistances Ed, Edd n Eddy
by 26% in the ratings.
But in the Comcast VOD numbers, Ed, Edd n Eddy
generated 167,510 total views for the six episodes that were available over a seven-week period, compared with 85,271 views for the 11 Samurai Jack episodes that were available for 12 weeks.
Ed, Edd n Eddy
is popular in the 6-to-11 demographic, Cohen said, which may account for the higher VOD usage.
Even those numbers — while not "official" ratings — have drawn interest from advertisers. Nintendo is sponsoring some VOD programming, Cohen said.
"We are just at the beginning stages. The investment is far exceeding any revenue we're making in the short-term, but we can experiment in this space with short-form spots that link into longer form spots. We could put ads in front of where people jump to."
While ad revenue is a more long-term opportunity, MSOs also believe that free VOD helps reduce digital churn, which also helps those programmers with berths on the digital tier.
"VOD usage has really been spectacular and it very clearly reduces churn," Addis said. "The more people use it, the more digital churn goes down."
CONTENT IS KEY
The keys to VOD growth will be "more and better content, a user interface that links linear and on demand content and product awareness and content promotion," said Addis.
Addis said weekly order rates are exceeding 700% a month now, steadily climbing throughout 2003 with the launches of Showtime and HBO On Demand.
"We effectively doubled the order rate when we added HBO," he said. "In October, 45% of the subs who had access to on demand ordered at least one show.
"The key is making that 45% move to 55%, and 65% and 95%."
VOD usage spans the gamut of traditional and nontraditional content. Prior to HBO on Demand's launch, Addis said, 40% of usage was of nonlinear cable content.
"There is a need for content that never sees the light of day because it doesn't fit traditional network models," he said.
Comcast now makes available NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and local-news telecasts from owned-and-operated NBC stations in several of its markets, and it's negotiating to re-up for 2004.
"The orders are in the thousands of views," said Addis of the news programming. "It's a very good category. Viewers tend to watch it in half the time, do it in the 8-9 p.m. block after the kids go to bed."