Promotional Punch

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Debates over video on demand's impact abound. But on one point everyone can agree: VOD is a great way to promote programming.

“We already know that VOD is a churn buster,” says Bernadette Aulestia, vice president of affiliate marketing at Home Box Office, who says HBO's VOD offerings have cut churn rates for the premium channel by 11% to 19%. “Now we are also finding out that it is a great way to promote the channel and our programming.”

Indeed the use of VOD to promote channels and new programming can be found in virtually every corner of the cable landscape. Showtime, HBO, A&E Network, VHI and Nick Jr. are only a few of the networks that have, or will be using, on-demand promotions for new summer series.

Footage, Exposure Costs

Even so, VOD promotions raise some thorny issues for programmers. Promos using behind-the-scenes footage can be expensive, and many networks worry that offering entire episodes on free VOD will hurt ratings for a show's linear channel run.

Tom Ascheim, executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Digital Networks says his group has experimented with a number of ways to use VOD to promote new series.

In February, The N promoted Miracle Boys with exclusive content for VOD and in June used VOD content to promote the premiere of its Instant Star series on broadband.

In August, Nickelodeon will launch an even more ambitious cross-platform promotion, using VOD, Nickjr.com, Noggin and Verizon Wireless devices to promote the Sept. 7 debut of Go Diego Go on the Nick Jr. lineup on and its Sept. 17 CBS premiere.

VH1 will also use VOD to promote and launch its new series Hogan Knows Best, says Ben Zurier, senior vice president of programming strategy at VH1. The first episode hit VOD on July 1, nine days before it bowed on the network.

Broadcasters and the larger basic-cable networks have generally been reluctant to promote high-profile primetime series with episodes on VOD.

One notable exception occurred three years ago, when Fox Cable Networks agreed to run the first season of FX's The Shield and Fox's 24 on Cablevision's VOD platform. While the promotions helped boost the shows' profiles in the New York market, no other high-profile broadcast drama series have since bowed on VOD, says Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of affiliate sales for Fox Cable.

He says making the more popular primetime content available “will take a coordinated effort that goes across studios, producers, networks and operators and distributors. When you are talking about bona fide hit programming there has to be a model that makes sense for all those constituencies.”

Walter Oden, vice president of business development, affiliate sales and marketing for A&E Television Networks, says it makes sense to promote the third season of an original series by airing episodes from the first season. “It has proven to be a very effective way to get viewers to try the show and build interest in the series.”

Behind-the-scenes footage and original content also works well, a tactic A&E used to promote new series Criss Angel Mindfreak. But Oden admits “cannibalizing ad revenues” with VOD runs of high-profile series, “continues to be a concern.”

Given those issues, many network groups have adopted a two-tiered strategy: Shows from their newer networks moves to VOD relatively quickly, but high-profile series on more established channels are promoted with behind-the-scenes content.

Building ad revenues on free VOD could help overcome some of those concerns. Coleman Breland, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Turner Network Sales, says his group has been successful with a number of sponsored VOD promotions. Last November, for example, Turner worked with Ford Motor Co. to create original VOD content to promote the launch of The Real Gilligan's Island on TBS. Over a one-month period, over 320,000 people viewed the Ford Mustang ad.

But Breland stresses that programmers and advertisers will need much better research before free VOD begins to bring in significant ad revenues.

Douglas Craig, vice president of programming for Discovery on Demand argues that the free VOD has already become a very important tool for their smaller digital networks.

“Once viewers sample the programming, they become viewers of the linear network,” Craig says.

Cross promotions between different VOD services are also becoming more common. Mag Rack, which is available in over 3.5 million homes, and sportsskool, which is in about 10 million, are both free VOD services. But they've worked extensively with operators to cross promote other services, including pay-per-view movies, according to Daniel Ronayne, senior vice president and general manager of the services.

For example, during the PPV release of the movie Ray, Mag Rack offered a VOD Ray Charles concert, behind-the-scene footage from the movie and instructional videos on how to play three of the singer's songs. Similarly, during the PPV run of Sideways, Mag Rack worked with operators to promote its wine programming.

Both helped drive viewers to Mag Rack and boost buy rates for the movie, Ronayne says.

Key to Showtime

Jeff Rochester, senior vice president of acquisition marketing at Showtime, says free and SVOD have played a key role in the network's promotional efforts.

Showtime creates short promotions for its shows for free VOD as part of its efforts to attract new subscribers. And it also runs short samplers on SVOD to build interest among existing subscribers. About 60% of the customers who view the sampler go on to watch the show, Rochester says.

Not surprisingly, VOD will play a key role this summer promoting two upcoming Showtime series, Barber Shop and Weeds.

Rochester sees further opportunities in free VOD to promote its boxing matches. “By showing a sampler of a recent fight, we can build interest and convert them to subscribers,” he says.

All of which increasingly makes VOD a knockout punch in the promotional ring.

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