Santa Clara, Calif.-Cable networks that want to grab more eyeballs for their content are eagerly watching operators as they complete system upgrades and launch new products.
And these days, it's more than digital set-top box deployments that are holding programmers' interest-they've also got cable modems in their sights.
At the CTAM Broadband Opportunity conference here two weeks ago, a group of programmers discussed their roles in delivering content for cable's broadband Internet services.
Programming executives are enthusiastic about using broadband to extend their brands beyond the television and as an outlet for exclusive content that might otherwise ended up on the cutting room floors. The challenge for these content holders is twofold. They must create a business model for an environment in which consumers are used to getting content for free, and in which the number of subscribers with the high-speed access needed to truly appreciate such content is not yet large enough to generate a mass audience.
While it's important to pay attention to the current number of broadband subscribers, "you can't allow them to distract you," Discovery.com chief technology officer Jeff Craig said.
Other panelists also cautioned against waiting for all the answers before proceeding with plans to develop broadband content.
"If you live in fear, you're not going to succeed," said Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. president of regional programming Greg Moyer.
Turner Network Sales Inc. senior vice president and general manager Kevin Cohen said: "We're all here spending money on things that aren't in people's business plans yet because we know consumers will want them."
Some TV viewers, especially children, have come to expect programmers to have robust Web sites with original broadband content, Noggin general manager Tom Ascheim said.
"For kids, they just think you're bizarre if you're not on the Internet," Ascheim said. "There's not an option any more to say, 'It might take away audience, so I don't want to do it.'"
Though many programmers are concerned with audience cannibalization, many are experimenting with means of sending viewers back and forth between their TV and PC.
Cartoon Network, for example, found its ratings for both the television network and the Web site increased during a multimedia
promotion earlier this year. Its advertising sponsor, Nintendo of America Inc., was so pleased with the results, it has already expressed interest in signing up for next year's promotion, Cohen said.
As audiences become more fragmented, Moyer said, sponsors may see the advertising target shift from large, captured audiences to smaller affinity groups.
Because digi-net Noggin works in a commercial-free environment, general manager Ascheim said, it is less concerned with the issues that worry advertising-supported programmers.
While a network's Web site gives viewers another chance to interact with a programmer, it's important that the content be unique to the technology, according to Scripps Networks New Ventures president Susan Packard.
At Scripps channels such as Food Network and Do-It-Yourself, more detailed online information-including recipes and step-by-step home- improvement instructions-complement what's available on cable.
"Online, our deliverables have to be larger than on the television," Packard said. The challenge is how to deliver more content online than on television and still fit the online fare into a business model, she added.
The speed of broadband cable-modem service helps support Food and DIY's online content, Packard said.
"We focus on the speed," Packard said. "Our viewers say to us all the time, 'I'm time-impoverished.'"
An overall lack of leisure time has also helped the growing demand for personal-video recording devices such as those from TiVo Inc. and ReplayTV Inc., which allow consumers to time-shift programming and zap through commercials at will.
At a keynote address during the Kagan VOD Summit in New York last week, Home Box Office chairman Jeff Bewkes noted that it would be a while before a majority of television households have access to PVRs or video-on-demand services.
But the move to time-shifted programming raises concerns for programmers, Bewkes admitted.
"How do you generate word of mouth [for a show] when there's not a schedule?" Bewkes asked. "How do you
finance new programming if nobody is on a schedule?" Without the support of schedule-based advertising, he said, "everything then goes to a subscription model or to pay-per view."
Bewkes said that programmers would be especially reluctant to create programming strictly for a pay-per-view model if they have no idea how many viewers would show up to buy a given show.
At the Kagan conference, Bewkes said HBO's first subscription video-on-demand MSO trials are likely to launch sometime in the first half of next year.