As women become busier and busier, the cable networks catering to that audience are finding video on demand to be an increasingly important piece of their promotional strategy.
“In their normal lives, women are balancing so many things — working, kids, taking care of their family,” said Lifetime executive vice president of distribution Lori Conkling. “VOD matches their busy lifestyle.
“[Our research shows that] the top reason why women say they watch VOD is because they need to watch TV when it is convenient and fits into their schedule.”
That sentiment is one that resonated with executives at Oxygen, WE TV, Food Network and other female-skewing networks. And the numbers bear that out, too.
Lifetime's research shows that “women use VOD as a sampling tool more than men,” said Conkling. “Forty-two percent of women are likely to discover new programs on demand and then seek them out on linear television.”
Such statistics indicate why, for instance, HGTV will bow Dream Home 2009 — in which a lucky person receives a new abode worth more than $1 million — on VOD a few days prior to its Jan. 1, 2009, debut on the linear network.
“Dream Home is the biggest cable sweepstakes in the industry and that fact that we are premiering it in VOD shows just how important VOD has become for us,” said Robin Pate, vice president of program scheduling at the network.
And HGTV isn't alone. Lifetime this month opted to offer viewers a sneak peek at the first five episodes of its new comedy Rita Rocks via on-demand.
Such shows are part of a growing array of women-targeted programming being made available on demand. Between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2008, the number of on-demand titles available from six women-targeted cable networks grew by 38%, according to Rentrak On Demand Essentials.
During that same period, Rentrak found a 91% increase in the number of times this content was ordered, much higher than the 32% overall growth in VOD orders.
Viewed over a longer timeframe, on-demand orders of this female-targeted content showed even faster growth, more than tripling from 3.9 million in first-quarter 2007 to 12.3 million in the third quarter of 2008.
“It is excellent growth,” said Cathy Hetzel, president of the Advanced Media and Information division at Rentrak. Hetzel attributes the growth to a number of factors, including additional distribution for female-targeted networks, new launches of woman-targeted programming and the fact that more women are accessing on-demand content.
Other data shows little difference between the overall usage of on-demand content by women and men. An August 2008 study by CTAM found slightly more men in the heavy VOD-user category, with men making up 53% of the group, but the medium VOD users (51% men and 49% women) and light VOD users (51% women and 49% men) were nearly evenly split between the genders.
A number of networks are also seeing their VOD strategies pay off with ratings.
This summer, for example, WE TV premiered the first season-five episode of Bridezillas on demand, and then made subsequent episodes available the next day on VOD. That's much faster than its shows usually move from linear to on-demand.
“The first episode achieved the highest delivery of women 18 to 49 we've had in any season,” said WE vice president of digital and emerging media Jen Robertson.
Even better, subsequent ratings have remained high. “Although the season isn't yet complete, we are pacing to be the highest rated season of Bridezillas yet, which is a feat when it comes to season five of anything,” Robertson said.
HGTV can tell a similar story. Following a cross-platform promotion using online and VOD content to promote the premiere episode of Design Star 3, average viewership among 25-to-54-year-old women was up 76% for Sunday at 9 p.m., according to Pate. VOD orders for all nine episodes also jumped dramatically to hit 407,595, up 143% from the 167,465 orders Design Star 2 got in the summer of 2007.
To build on those successes, networks are also experimenting with the types of content they are offering on demand.
Oxygen's orders for on-demand content grew 37% in 2007 and another 27% in first-quarter 2008, compared to the year prior, said vice president of strategic multiplatform program planning Mai Kim Flournoy. But its most popular content is changing.
While much of Oxygen's early growth was driven by the VOD-only “Air Karaoke” product, which allows viewers to sing along with popular songs, its cable originals are now its most-ordered content.
To continue that growth, the network has changed its VOD menu, tying it more closely to specific shows. Oxygen is planning to add more content tied to its cable originals, including short versions of full episodes and short promos for upcoming series.
“VOD is an underserved platform that is a priority for us to expand,” she said.
Food Network is also increasingly finding VOD success with its popular originals. Early on, the Scripps Networks Interactive-owned service also experimented with offering short original content for the VOD platform, creating clips explaining how to cook specific recipes.
In recent years, however, “the highest VOD usage has been for shows like The Next Food Network Star and Iron Chef America that are the highest-rated shows on the [linear] networks,” said senior vice president of marketing, creative and brand strategy Michael Smith.
Given the hectic lives of its viewers, Smith also sees the VOD platform as a way of keeping Food fans engaged in a program — particularly some of its longer-running series.
“Most people's schedule doesn't allow them to see a certain segment every Tuesday at 9 p.m.,” he said. “The great thing about VOD is that it gives the viewers an opportunity to catch up on those episodes they've missed and helps keep them engaged in the series.”
Food has also been ramping up its high-definition production, with about 45% to 50% of its HD-simulcast programming now native to the format, Smith noted. While it doesn't have HD distribution for its VOD offerings, Smith says the network will be ready when the operators are.
“We attract an upscale female audience, which helps broaden the appeal of the VOD offering,” he said.
That appeal is also opening up new distribution opportunities for VOD products targeting women as telcos and satellite-TV providers expand their on demand offerings, noted Lifetime's Conkling.
For example, Dish Network has inked a deal to carry Lifetime's English-language VOD product and Lifetime Movie Network Español on Demand, which features 10 movies dubbed into Spanish. Both the English and Spanish products are also carried by Verizon Communications' FiOS TV and AT&T's U-verse TV.