Networks Tread Into Broadband Content

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Cable networks are tapping the possibilities of broadband technology on their Web sites, but they're doing so cautiously, considering the parade of recent flameouts among dot-com companies delivering high-bandwidth fare.

At present, most cable networks see the Web as a place to promote TV schedules and extend brands into a medium that could, if predictions pan out, eventually converge with television. It's a platform to promote images, demonstrate creativity, and forge loyalty with audiences-lest someone else try to steal their franchise.

"If you can bring your brand and image to the Web to offer an engaging and interactive online experience, you can pre-empt the rise of a challenger," said Steve Vonder Haar, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston.

Cable-network Web sites have some key advantages over the inhabitants of the dot-com broadband graveyard, such as decades of investment that have built the brand. People are familiar with Discovery Channel, Independent Film Channel or MTV: Music Television.

Most cable-network owners also have parent companies with the deep pockets to cope with financial losses.

But make no mistake: All of these players are seeking ways to trim those losses and eventually make a buck with broadband content.

Here's some of what's new:

· Discovery Channel plans an elaborate broadband component for its next "Watch with the World" special,
Inside the Space Station

on Dec. 10. Discovery.com will give high-speed users a richer and more interactive visual experience than previously offered.

In a first, it will also clearly package its broadband elements. The move highlights the rising number of high-speed residential connections, now pegged at between 2 million and 3 million cable-modem and digital-subscriber-line customers.

The Yankee Group projects that by 2004, there will be 16.6 million high-speed residential connections.

Discovery.com's aim is to provide visitors with a "you-are-there" experience, said content manager Randy Rieland. Want to watch the space station on video? Done, with the click of a mouse. Want to dock the Space Shuttle? Users can do so-virtually.

There also will be 12 short films available, with outtakes and footage shot especially for broadband. Interactive videos, in which users can click on a video stream to access astronaut biographies or other in-depth information, will also be available.

· Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.'s Independent Film Channel and Web site IFILM will produce a half-hour television magazine on independent films that will also run, in short bursts, on IFC's Web site.

The yet-to-be titled program, which starts in spring 2001, will also be available to Road Runner subscribers in its entirety, as a cybercast.

Like most cable networks, IFC parent Bravo Networks sees the Internet primarily as a place to keep its brands front and center. But in the future, the Web will be good for more.

"We know from our research that our viewers are likely to move to new technology platforms that prove worthy, such as digital television, personal video recorders and cable modems," said Bravo Networks executive vice president of new media Joe Cantwell. Rainbow plans for its networks to be somewhat ahead of those platforms.

To that end, Bravo Networks set up an interactive research and development media unit earlier this year. It's currently staffed with 10 employees and has a 10-year funding commitment.

In the future, Bravo Networks will make original productions from its library available for download and playback, via broadband, by next spring. It also recently made two IFC programming blocks available online: "DV Theater," a program dedicated to digital films; and "The Short Wave," which features short films.

· The MTVi Group, the Internet division of Viacom Inc.'s music properties, and Excite@Home Corp. will soft-launch an expanded online music and entertainment area at music.excite.com, within the next month, MTVi president Nicholas Butterworth said.

The new site is the first result of a broadband programming and marketing alliance the two companies forged six months ago.

Music.excite.com-a news and entertainment offering that features artist interviews, promotional clips and customized Internet radio-has taken several months longer to materialize than had been anticipated. The delay, said Butterworth, doesn't suggest a shrinking commitment to broadband, despite a recent 25 percent staffing reduction at MTVi.

"We've been playing with the product to make sure it's right," Butterworth said.

The personnel cuts were needed to push the Viacom unit closer to profitability, so it can evolve.

"We're more focused on making broadband work as a business," Butterworth said. "We have a model we believe in strongly and we will be a profitable company."

When would that be? Butterworth would not give a target date, but insisted there is one.

At present, MTVi's various Web sites boast a significant broadband audience. That's because a key target-college students-has easy access to the technology. Between 25 and 30 percent of collegians can access T-1 connections, DSL or cable modems via dormitories or classrooms.

MTVi also believes it benefits because its main offerings-short-form video, animation and music-are well-tailored to broadband. Also, rather than waiting for PC-television convergence, sister cable network MTV: Music Television already embraces interactivity.

· Presidential-election coverage on FOXNews.com will culminate on Election Day (Nov. 7). The site's rich mix of video, graphics and other elements is part of the "Fox Broadband Showcase," which started more than one year ago.

The material is also distributed through Fox's broadband partners: Road Runner, Excite@Home Corp. and America Online Inc.'s AOL Plus.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, FOXNews.com will carry a feature in which citizens can analyze the campaign and candidates, second-by-second. The aim is to establish the Fox News Channel brand in a new medium, said FOXNews.com senior vice president Laura Derkin.

"At some point, the television and Internet platforms will meet, and however the final presentation will be-whether it's television with a set-top box or a PC with a complete cable television capability-we are finding new ways of giving information to people," she said.

"It's labor intensive and the revenue is not pouring through the door," Derkin added. "But this is an engagement that has to be made."

FOXSports.com has long used the Web to deliver experiences that sports fans can't get elsewhere. It also sees the possibility of a future pay-per-view Web business.

"We're not just here to produce a Web site," said Fox-Sports.com senior vice president Danny Greenberg. "It's a business, and we're here to make money."

And that money-making point could come with in one year, he predicted.

"The technology is possible, but there are obvious quality issues," he said. But Greenberg believes that if users have realistic expectations, Web-based PPV can work.

On Sept. 2, Fox Sports produced a Webcast of a University of Nebraska-San Jose State University college-football game. It was the first time a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1-A game was made available exclusively over the Internet.

Greenberg couldn't supply concrete online viewership numbers, but said the video stream received more than 200,000 hits. Even more suprisingly, he said, the Webcast broke even.

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