How Curlers, Rockers Benefit Cable

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Curling, that arcane Winter Olympic sport, and rock 'n’ roll’s Dave Matthews Band have something in common: both have been used by the two biggest U.S. cable companies to promote their advanced services.

Partnerships with the content providers have allowed the operators — Time Warner Cable, which used the Torino Winter Olympics to tout interactivity, and Comcast Corp., which used Matthews and company to lure high-definition customers — to expand interest in those platforms while giving the content providers a different customer-contact experience.

TV INTERACTION

The Olympic curling events might have been the stuff of late-night talk show jokes, but they also might have contributed to high interactive usage rates in Time Warner Cable’s Green Bay division. On-screen prompts to use the product also helped, Time Warner officials said.

Via a partnership with NBC Universal, seven of the giant cable company’s divisions were able to offer extra content to their subscribers during the recent Winter Olympic contests from Turin, Italy, accessible via one click of the remote.

Without leaving an event, viewers could check the USA contingent’s medal count, get pertinent news on the home team, read athlete biographies and check the Olympic program schedule across NBC’s networks. The content would appear as a three-quarter interactive screen, with up-to-date information on the sport being telecast, plus the ability to access more detailed sports stats.

The content also was available on the Internet. But in these cable systems, viewers could access it via their TV sets.

The point of the partnership, Time Warner Cable chief marketing officer Sam Howe said, was to see how many layers of content the systems could create for consumers, and to determine how many viewers would use them.

“We want to generate delight and surprise,” he said.

The extra content was available in Columbia, S.C., and in Austin, Corpus Christi, El Paso, San Antonio and Waco, Texas, in addition to Green Bay. The division used an interactive application developed by BIAP Systems in partnership with Time Warner.

In six of the divisions, a prompt would appear on screen to direct consumers to the on-demand content. Those divisions averaged 22.2% usage across a base of 638,000 interactive-capable subscribers.

Time Warner estimates the content attracted 141,000 unique users, meaning many viewers utilized the on-demand content repeatedly. In the division that did not use the prompt, usage averaged only 6.4%.

Green Bay reported the best results, Howe said, with an average usage rate of 45%. He credited effective cross-channel promotion, use of the on-screen prompt and the fact that people in Wisconsin love that rock-sliding winter sport. (Rock is another common element of curling and the Dave Matthews Band.)

Time Warner didn’t sell ads within the content. Howe said the point was not to generate additional revenue but to demonstrate that interactivity works, as well as to add value for current subscribers.

For NBC Universal, the partnership served to drive ratings for the networks carrying the games. Though 90% of cable operators participated in Olympics promotion in some way (such as with high-definition and digital acquisition campaigns), Time Warner Cable was the only operator with an interactive cable application, said NBC Universal Cable senior vice president of marketing Mark Hotz.

Direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and Dish Network also offered interactive applications.

“We wanted a robust Olympic offering,” Hotz said, so events were spread across six NBC Universal broadcast and cable networks, including two high-definition outlets. In addition to the real-time and on-demand content, Time Warner made a microsite available to its Road Runner high-speed data customers that attracted hundreds of thousands of users, Hotz said.

The cable partnership gave Time Warner the opportunity to co-brand with the Olympics without spending the millions in ad dollars that direct sponsors did, Hotz added.

Hotz said he was pleased with the interactive experience, and said representatives of from both companies would meet to see how they could fine-tune the offering. Media application planning for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing will begin this September.

“The further out front, the better we’re going to be,” he said.

ROCKING IN HD

Comcast Corp. and retailers deploy many strategies to drive high-definition set purchases and point-of-sale content sign-ups, but a November promotion brought some rock 'n’ roll glitz to the platform.

That month, PBS’s long-time music series Soundstage was scheduled to feature a concert by the Dave Matthews Band on its national HD feed.

Marketing executives at Comcast contacted the band’s management to negotiate a deal that would allow the operator to promote the HD airing of the event on cable, using the name and likeness of the band members for the entire month.

It was not an easy negotiation, said Kevin Hill, vice president of national marketing. Band management was fearful the HD concert would prompt home taping, affecting holiday CD and DVD sales. “But we got over that,” Hill said.

Comcast drew in retail partners such as Best Buy and promoted the concert in retailers’ circulars. During the weeks preceding the concert and into December, HD buyers who subscribed to HD content from Comcast could redeem an offer for either $100 off the purchase of an HD TV set, or off their cable bill, plus a complete Dave Matthews CD or DVD collection.

More than half of the HD set buyers, who met the offer requirements by signing up for HD service, too, redeemed both the $100 off and CD/DVD collection offers, Hill said.

Soundstage had its highest viewership in some time, according to Hill, and Comcast book-ended the concert with a 15-second message that said “Comcast digital with HD puts you in the front row.

“We can leverage that [event] into bigger events,” Hill said, and get them ramped up more quickly. “Now we get calls from acts asking 'How do we get the Dave Matthews deal?’ We’re talking to some major, major artists.”

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