Regionals: Get Interactive Now, Pay Later

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The era of paying to watch regional-sports-network programming may still be a few years in the future, but several regional sports networks are helping to pave the way by launching interactive-programming ventures.

With the rollout of digital boxes and the growth of the Internet, sports-network executives feel that interactive-sports shows will not only help networks reach out to the consumer, but also prepare viewers to interact with and, eventually, pay for sports programming.

Regional sports networks and national services like ESPN and Fox Sports Net have used their respective Internet sites in conjunction with live events and specialty-sports programming on the network.

But recently, those outlets have begun to combine the interactive aspects of the Internet with original sports programming to develop shows that consumers can both watch and take part in through new technology.

Fox Sports New England, for example, has created an innovative sports talk show that brings the popular sports-radio talk format to the screen.

Using state-of-the-art technology and leveraging new opportunities made possible by the growth of high-speed Internet access in the market-of its 3.4 million-subscriber base, at least 200,000 have high-speed hookups-the network's Foxwoods Gameface interactive program combines the live, time-proven concept of TV and radio call-in programs with the face-to-face interactive capability of Webcams, PCs and the Internet, senior vice president and general manager David Woodman said.

VIDEO-MAILING IT IN

The show, which debuted in March, allows viewers with Webcams in their homes to "call in" to the show. Their images appear on-screen along with the show's hosts and other guests.

"We take e-mail, but if you have a Webcam, you can film yourself and download it to us," Woodman said.

In addition, Fox Sports New England installed several interactive kiosks in sports bars and other locations to give those not yet equipped with broadband or high-speed Internet access and Webcams the chance to participate. Eventually, the network will create a Gameface portal that will appear on the FOXSports.com Web site.

"Through the expansion of broadband, we can give our viewers an opportunity to speak to coaches, athletes and the [regional-sports-network] hosts about the things that are on their minds," Woodman said. "Think talk radio and put it on television."

Thus far, through two shows, the results have been overwhelming. The shows aired about 20 to 30 home-video-mail participants each and at least a half-dozen video-mails from the kiosks.

Though the network doesn't have any more Gameface shows scheduled, it is planning to turn the show into a weekly series beginning sometime in August. "We think interactivity is so important that I see it being a part of the network on a much broader basis," Woodman said.

The initiative is part of the Rainbow Sports group's aggressiveness in using technological innovations to better serve its consumers.

"The Gameface initiative is an exciting story and one we would like to duplicate in other markets as broadband rolls out," Rainbow Sports president Daniel Ronayne said. "As the world changes and technology converges, you're either in the lead or far behind. As this develops, it is clear that the Internet and interactivity is a powerful tool that strengthens our relationships with [the] consumer."

Other regionals are exploring similar opportunities to offer interactive elements to their sports-programming lineups, particularly as digital boxes become more prevalent in cable homes.

"As digital options roll out, you'll still see the game as it is, but you'll also see some enhancements that will give subscribers more interaction with the network," Fox Sports Southwest general manager Jon Heidtke said.

NEED BANDWIDTH

Paul Kagan Associates Inc. sports analyst John Mansell said that while there is a movement toward more interactive-sports ventures, he feels that the industry has been slow to move toward the new technology, mostly due to a lack of bandwidth capacity to the home.

"I think all of us thought interactivity would have played a more important part than it has to date," Mansell said. "I think as more and more digital boxes get deployed, it will become much easier to develop the interactive services. But the key is the box deployment."

Once the category does get up and running, he said, interactivity will be a tremendous boon for the regional-sports-network business. Such initiatives could draw interest from interactive services like those offered by Wink Communications Inc. and OpenTV Inc., which could benefit from the push toward interactivity from the regional sports networks.

"Interactivity will make the regional sports networks even more attractive to cable subscribers, as well as to advertisers," Mansell added.

Today's efforts in interactive programming could also open up opportunities for regionals to generate additional revenue from subscribers.

Executives said a host of PPV opportunities could be created through interactive technology. Viewers, for example, could pay an additional $2 to $3 to see a game from different angles, or receive a commercial-free version with additional interviews or audio enhancements not found on basic cable.

But these potential interactive innovations are inevitably tied to the widespread deployment of digital boxes, which is still a few years away. "I would think you're looking at two to three years," Mansell said.

And with real interactive-revenue opportunities more accurately described as tomorrow's projections than today's reality, not all regional sports networks are fully embracing interactive programming.

The extent of most regional networks' interactive activities is confined to network-based Internet sites that offer program schedules, exclusive columns from on-air personalities and chats with local sports stars.

"From a programming standpoint, we've been talking about what we can put on the Internet and the network to interact with our subscribers," Midwest SportsChannel acting general manager Jim Woelfel said. "I think that's something you'll see more of and something you'll be adding along with the new digital business. I don't see it this year-I think it's only a couple of years out."

DEALING WITH TEAMS

Tapping the regionals' greatest assets-the local sports teams-may be difficult. With the professional-sports leagues maintaining Internet rights for their own national sites, executives said, the networks might have trouble working with individual teams to develop interactive opportunities with consumers.

"I think the pro teams could offer [cable] some Internet opportunities, but it'll be determined by what degree they'll protect the league rights holders," Woelfel said.

While it may not be necessary to have an interactive component to be successful in today's marketplace, Comcast SportsNet president and CEO Jack L. Williams said he felt that the networks should nevertheless keep up to date with the technology to provide subscribers with all possible options.

Comcast SportsNet recently launched its Web site, on which Williams plans to eventually provide interactive features network viewers can utilize. "I don't know if interactivity is necessary to thrive, but it represents an evolution of the regional-sports-network business, and if you want to remain current with your viewers, you have to keep up with new technology," he added.

"With interactivity, you have an opportunity to strengthen and bond with the community you serve," Woodman said. "We're always looking to enhance the viewing experience of the game in every way we can."

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