Cable operators are starting to get serious about local
content for their cable-modem services, but whether or not their subscribers care is
Most cable-modem providers are offering some kind of
community information as part of their products. Some are working harder than others by
hiring staff and teaming up with partners to create original content, while others are
simply setting up links to the wealth of information that already exists on the Web.
The best sites of this group compare well in quality to
other local-information sites on the Internet. Many of them, however, are more or less
made up of plain-vanilla information with some attractive graphics, albeit specifically
targeted at small towns or communities that likely appreciate the interactive attention.
Regardless of such efforts, industry analysts and
subscribers to cable-modem services said the access speed of cable modems, and not local
content, is their primary reason for shelling out for the services.
Cable operators said that's fine, reasoning that their
local-content services can only become more important as other high-speed Internet-access
competition emerges and their subscriber bases expand. Besides, creating local content now
is a necessary trial by fire for improving their offerings.
Most cable operators that are investing in local content
share a similar approach. Sites cover an array of information about arts and
entertainment, sports, news, weather, health, community services, real estate, shopping
and other topics of interest to subscribers.
Comcast Corp.'s Comcast Cable Communications Inc., for
example, has created local city or area guides served by its @Home Network cable-modem
The series of guides, coined "In Your Town,"
focus on 10 "channels" of information, including business, travel, arts and
entertainment, real estate, sports, health and community.
Comcast Online, the division of Comcast that produces the
local content, has both local and central staff that create the stand-alone content.
Richard Rasmus, vice president of Comcast Online, would not say how many people it used to
create the In Your Town sites.
Comcast also taps partners for some of the content. The
Weather Channel, for example, provides local weather for the Comcast service.
One of Comcast's most popular local-content features
also relies on a partner. Comcast works with TVSM, publishers of Total TV and TheCable Guide, to create an interactive listing of local-television programming. And
Comcast works in conjunction with cable networks to highlight various programs.
Rasmus said another popular feature on the sites is a
detailed, flexible and useful mapping service for providing customers with directions to
restaurants or other businesses. Customers can choose among several magnifications to get
just the view that they need to figure out directions to a location.
As is the case for most local-content cable-modem sites,
the In Your Town sites are designed for use via conventional computer modems, as well as
As a result, they look similar to many
commercial-information sites on the Web, mixing graphics with text and hyperlinks.
Braxton Jarratt, site-development manager for Cox
Communications Inc. unit Cox Interactive Media's Orange County, Calif., studio, said
only a small portion of its content takes advantage of cable-modem broadband capabilities,
with such elements as video clips. One of the biggest obstacles, operators said, is the
fact that many visitors to the local-content sites are using slower modems.
Multimedia features, however, are some of the most popular
parts of the Cox service, Jarratt said. Traffic to multimedia-rich features is five to 10
times higher than traffic to other content.
One such multimedia package was a feature on the reopening
of the "Tomorrow Land" ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Cox sent a reporter
to the event with a digital-video camera, and it posted various formats of the video for
viewing with high-bandwidth cable modems and lower-bandwidth computer modems.
Most cable-modem sites featuring local content intermix
general or national information with local information. The "recreation" section
of Cox's Orange County @Home site (www.ocnow.com), for example, provides
details on local hiking areas, along with a primer on back-country cooking.
Since the sites cover such a vast range of information, and
since they have been in development for a short time, each tends to focus on a few topics,
while skimming the rest. One of OCNow's most popular sites, for example, is its
detailed guide to all of the golf courses in Orange County. The guide contains reviews,
illustration and tips from local pros for every hole of the county's 18 public golf
courses. The site also includes polls and discussion groups.
Most sites work hard to build community interaction. Each
site usually has a dedicated "community" section, which focus on the minutiae of
a town's or area's politics, social events, entertainment and news.
'IT'S NOT CHEAP'
Time Warner Cable's Northeastern Ohio Division hosts
close to 200 distinct Web sites for its Road Runner cable-modem service (www.neo.rr.com),
based in Akron, Ohio. A total of 100 of the sites are for community businesses, with the
others for nonprofit organizations, serving as a listing of important community
organizations and places, such as parks, theaters, museums and hospitals.
The company has also created such features as "Home
Town News," which lets customers publish information about the minutiae of everyday
living, such as wedding, birth and graduation announcements; and "Talk Back," a
forum for citizens to comment on such current topics as violence in the schools.
Tish Biggs, online-content supervisor for the service, said
her company plans to expand its community offerings with such services as Web-based
training programs with local universities using videoconferencing technology.
And Cox's @Home service in its Orange County area
offers discussion groups and community-news kiosks for each of the 31 towns in its
"It's not cheap," Jarratt said, referring to
the cost of developing such specific community content.
The Orange County studio employees 15 full-time staff
members and 20 to 30 contributors, some of whom are paid, and some of whom aren't.
Both the town-oriented and county discussion groups are
popular, Jarratt said, although he wouldn't supply usage figures.
"I think that giving people the opportunity to discuss
is as important as providing information," Jarratt said.
The bottom-line benefits of such local content offerings,
however, are not clear.
'NOT A SALES DRIVER'
Bruce Leichtman, director of media and entertainment
strategies for Boston-based consultancy The Yankee Group, said local content is not a
significant factor in whether or not someone decides to sign on for cable-modem services.
"At this point in time, it's not a
sales-driver," Leichtman said. "It's like power windows: You don't buy
a car just for them, but they're a nice bonus."
Leichtman said most customers sign up for cable-modem
service specifically because of its better access speed.
He added, however, that local-content offerings will be
more important as cable modems face competition from other high-speed Internet-access
services offered by phone companies, utilities and others.
Nevertheless, Leichtman said, consolidated local content
can be appealing to cable-modem subscribers.
"Convenience is not a bad thing," he said.
"So much is about packaging."
Indeed, comments from cable-modem customers supported
Bob Silverman, a subscriber to Comcast's @Home service
in Sarasota, Fla., said he primarily signed on because of the cable-modem access speed.
He added, however, that he uses the "In Sarasota"
site (www.insarasota.com), that he enjoys its convenience and that it compares well
with other sites containing local information on the Web. In particular, it cuts down the
time that he spends searching for local information.
But Susan Hamon, a Tele-Communications Inc. @Home customer
in Seattle, said she doesn't pay much attention to the @Home interface or its links
to local content.
She wanders more broadly on the Web and uses the America
Online Inc. browser for most of her Internet navigation.
"It [@Home's local content] is not a big
deal," Hamon said. "It could be, I suppose, if I paid more attention."
TCI has not invested in a staff to create original local
Currently, local content for TCI's cable-modem
service, such as the one that it offers in part of Seattle, consists of a collection of
links to existing Web sites featuring local content.
Tim Sweeney, director of content development for TCI.NET, a
division of TCI, said he views local content as "extremely important." Sweeney
said his company is working on developing partnerships with local-media entities to create
Web-based interactive-multimedia material for its cable-modem services.
Regardless of subscriber enthusiasm for local content on
cable-modem services, cable operators are milking the sites for as many marketing benefits
Comcast, Cox and other operators set up links from
local-content sections to their corporate sites, which provide the nuts and bolts of
customer information for cable subscribers.
Cable operators also use the their local sites -- which are
available to the general public over the Web -- to promote their cable-modem services with
banner ads, contests and other promotions.
Rasmus said a relatively small percentage of people are
using the Web for dealing with cable companies, but that group is growing.
And, as Biggs noted, cable operators' current
investments in local content are for future payoffs.
"It's the McDonald's [Corp.] model,"
Biggs said, referring to the fast-food-restaurant chain. "Speed at some point becomes
the expectation. After that, the only thing that people care about is the quality of the