Pay Nets Test Web-Activated Sampling

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Some pay-per-view services allow viewers to sample the first few minutes of a movie before they commit to a purchase.

Starz Encore Group LLC has taken the concept one step further, announcing last week that it will launch a "free preview on-demand" trial Tuesday (Sept. 5) in two New Jersey cable systems.

Comcast Corp. cable systems in Monmouth and Ocean counties will ask customers to use the www.freestarz.com Web site or to dial a local toll-free number to order the "Starz Encore Super Pak" for a 30-day trial. Within seconds of the order, Comcast's technology partner, TelVue Corp., will descramble the subscriber's set-top box.

Home Box Office began a marketing blitz in Boston last week to promote its own online ordering partnership with the local AT & T Broadband system. The exclusive online promotion offers one free month of HBO, plus discounted service for several months.

Both promotions give current cable customers quick access to premium channels without having to wait on hold, as long as they already have active accounts and addressable cable boxes.

"The average 25-year-old would rather order over the Internet than talk [to a customer-service representative] on the phone," HBO U.S. Network group president John Billock said.

Free previews, of course, are nothing new for premium channels. But unlike the free nights or weekends typically promoted in the past, the new online-provisioning systems allow cable customers to choose the most convenient time for them.

If a customer sits down to watch television and sees a Starz! movie that looks good on the programming guide, the customer can order the free preview right then and there, Starz Encore vice president of tactical marketing Warren Zeller said.

There's a built-in security feature, however, to prevent customers from accessing more than one month's preview during the marketing trial.

The two Comcast systems will run the trial through the end of the year, Zeller said. The free previews will be promoted through direct mail, cross-channel and print ads.

It will be up to the affiliate to follow up with customers that order the Starz preview to make sure they sign up for the monthly service afterward. "That's the critical component," Zeller said. "It's like a baton handoff."

In Boston, AT & T Broadband became HBO's first affiliate to offer online provisioning several weeks ago, and it had logged more than 100 orders through the Web site even before HBO's marketing efforts first kicked off, Billock said.

Last Monday, HBO began a three-week local media campaign to call attention to the online ordering features, with broadcast-television, radio, print and cross-channel ads, as well as electronic messages to AT & T Broadband subscribers who had previously given the operator permission to e-mail them.

The HBO television ad asks viewers, "What are you doing online? Looking for a little action?" It then shows a picture of Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker smiling from a bathtub.

After the ads started running, AT & T Broadband's Boston system was averaging 100 new online orders per day last week, Northeast region pay TV product manager Jeff Levy said.

The orders are handled by the system's inside sales department, and HBO service is activated within 24 hours, Levy said, adding, "Eventually, this needs to feed into our billing system."

Time Warner Cable customers in Memphis, Tenn., can already order HBO online through the system's Web site, Billock said. The companies are working with DST Innovis Inc. to hyperlink the site to HBO.com so viewers going to the national site can also order HBO or Cinemax there.

Memphis customers who order through HBO.com will end up back at the local Time Warner site, but the look and feel of the sites will be so seamless that they'll never notice, DST Innovis director of Internet Keith Gordon said.

"It's the wave of the future," Levy said about ordering premium services online. "You can order a car online-there's no reason why you can't order a $10 or $11 premium channel."

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