Cable programmers continued their public conversation about putting content online for free and the need to identify viable revenue streams for online content at the Promax/BDA conference here Tuesday.
"Putting content online for free is not a business," Jeff Shell, president of the Comcast Programming Group, said, to agreement from other top cable-network executives on an afternoon panel session during the first of three days of the conference at the New York Hilton.
Not giving content away online is an emerging consensus among programmers that enjoy a dual revenue stream -- license fees from cable, satellite and telco affiliates and advertising -- and the reason why Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other distributors are working with content providers on "entitlement" schemes to let paying subscribers watch programming online as well as on TV.
For marketing purposes, though, programmers want to use the Web to let viewers sample new and returning shows.
"We think there's an upside for promotional reasons," NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions President Bonnie Hammer said. "[If] people to see episodes off channel, they'll be pushed back to watch it on-air in a scheduled way. We also know what our bread and butter is. We're a cable company. We want to make sure we get paid for our content and we want to make sure that that model holds. So it's really a balance."
Disney Channels Worldwide President Rich Ross said the media giant has used the Web as a kind of trial ground for shows, particularly old episodes from the Disney archives, to see what had value online and what should be moved to a different platform.
Reruns of Disney's Even Stevens failed to draw much online interest, for example, so Disney took it off the Web and onto another Disney TV channel, the boys-focused Disney XD.
"It made sense for that," said Ross. "We found a value there. We didn't want to make it just valueless by chucking it on and just having anything [online].
Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group President Cyma Zarghami pointed to Nick's success with cross-platform programming like the hit iCarly - about three young teenagers who create a hit Web show -- to highlight her organization's online relevance.
When asked what the biggest challenge facing her organization will be in the next few years, Hammer said for a network like USA, the charge was to modulate the network's brand of scripted drama and dramedy to keep it intriguing, while maintaining its ratings stronghold. Hammer discussed the challenge of Sci Fi Channel's rebrand to Syfy next month and working towards "the evolution of their new brand to grow internationally."
Comcast's Shell said his group's priority for the next five years is in building its sports properties. Comcast's regional sports networks have an opportunity to capture advertising dollars "as newspapers struggle and radio struggles," he said.
Comcast also hopes to grow the Versus brand, a network that has had some success with college football and National Hockey League coverage.
All four executives said their organizations were keenly aware of the ongoing economic struggles of their viewers and trying to produce programming that reflected those new economic realities.
Hammer said "we really struggled" when deciding whether to go ahead with Royal Pains, a new show about a doctor in the uber-wealthy Hamptons, but ultimately decided audiences were tuning in for escapism.
"It is a guilty pleasure, but they are watching," Hammer said. The show has started strongly in the ratings.
Shell - whose group also includes the E! Entertainment and Style networks -- agreed that the element of escapism has always been an important part of television, but alluded to some viewer exhaustion to programming about coddled celebrities and the fabu life of the super-rich.
In the kid's space, Zarghami said Nickelodeon has often tried to create programming that reflected a changing society and how it affects young people. When Hey Arnold! came out in the mid-'90s, she said, it was one of the first kid shows that depicted a city kid living with his grandparents-as opposed to a traditional nuclear family-and hanging out with a diverse group of peers.
Zarghami said Nickelodeon and others in Viacom's MTV Networks would continue to develop programming that was "reflective of a new kind of storytelling."
David Tanklefsky is a reporter for Broadcasting & Cable magazine.