Making Free VOD Pay

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Comcast Corp. and Rentrak Corp. will test a new system to measure and report anonymous video-on-demand usage data — a first step toward gathering the ratings info ad-supported networks and cable operators crave to generate revenue for “free” VOD programming.

Comcast and Rentrak — known for compiling data about movie box-office and home-video rental revenue — will start the trial in Philadelphia, home to Comcast’s largest VOD platform that offers 1,200 hours per month, via 1,800 programs, in May.

Rentrak calls the system “VOD Essentials,” saying that it trades on census-gathering information, rather than sampling.

“This is a first step to help us gain a better understanding of VOD,” said Comcast vice president of marketing, new video products Page Thompson.

“We’re excited about working with Rentrak and believe this data will help us accelerate growth in the percentage of customers using on-demand and the orders per user,” Thompson said.

Ken Papagan, executive vice president of new-business development and strategic planning at Rentrak, said the information-management company tested its program in an undisclosed Comcast system late last summer.

Thompson dubbed those efforts “technical trials to see how the reports would look and be formatted. It went extremely well.”

Papagan added that under the upcoming one-year test with Comcast, VOD Essentials would be able to provide usage data anonymously and within 24 hours to the MSO about all of the programming and content providers contributing to its VOD offerings in the Philadelphia market, encompassing movies, series, free-VOD content, subscription-VOD fare and on-demand advertising.

DVR DATA TOO?

Down the road, the system could also collect data fron digital video recorders, he said.

“The idea is to help Comcast and other MSOs to better gauge what content to provide to their subscribers,” Papagan said. “What interests people serviced through one headend might be vastly different than in another area.”

Thompson believes Comcast’s nonexclusive relationship with Rentrak will yield valuable programming and marketing insights.

“We have been collecting some data manually on a local basis. This will allow us to roll up data and see what people like to watch, and allow us to focus more on marketing,” he said.

Thompson noted that “there has been a spike in on-demand usage” through Comcast’s barker channel for its on-demand application, tune-in ads for programming and more targeted special promotions, before adding that “we’re considering rolling out some across the country.”

During its fourth-quarter earnings report, Comcast officials said that more than half of the operator’s digital customers are accessing on-demand fare more than 15 times per month.

Papagan noted that Rentrak has had ongoing dialogue with other cable operators about VOD Essentials. The company is also talking with programmers.

“We’re in discussions with content providers as we speak. Content providers have said they didn’t want to have to go through 100 different reports to find out what is or isn’t working in VOD,” he added.

EVERSTREAM TAKE

Everstream Inc. is providing on-demand data collection and aggregation services for a number of leading MSOs, including Time Warner Cable and Adelphia Communications Corp., through its S4 Oi software.

“We’re able to interface right into the headend, connect right into the data,” said Evergreen CEO Steve McHale. “We’re able to connect into the systems, put the packets of information into data models for analytics for engineers, operations personnel and MSO marketing departments.”

McHale said Evergreen has the capability to generate reports similar to the ones that Rentrak will produce for Comcast, but has opted not to move in that direction for now.

“That would be another application for us,” said McHale. “Some customers have approached us about that, but we fail to see ROI [return on investment] at this stage of on-demand development.”

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