Sapan's VOD View Stresses Originality

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Rainbow Media Holdings Inc.'s Mag Rack service is the epitome of Joshua Sapan's vision for video-on-demand.

The Rainbow CEO is the industry's chief — and possibly only — champion for original VOD content with a platform-specific brand.

But that doesn't mean Sapan doesn't see a role for VOD and subscription VOD packages from other programmers or other networks in Rainbow's fold, including American Movie Classics, Bravo, Independent Film Channel and WE: Women's Entertainment.

Indeed, IFC is offering 25 to 30 films on Rainbow parent Cablevision Systems Corp.'s iO: Interactive Optimum platform as part of a $4.95 a month SVOD package. And plans are in development for AMC, Bravo and WE programming to make its way to on-demand platforms, possibly by year's end, he said.

Just don't expect it to be the exact same content time-shifted or repackaged from linear television.

"Two things drive us with Mag Rack — a focus on a new brand and new content for VOD," Sapan said.

He argues that consumers are savvy about content, particularly younger viewers, and will soon discover that much of the VOD content is the same as is available on linear television.

'CAPTIVATING' FARE

Cable operators are finding that digital penetration is stalling, and much of the digital programming is repurposed content that many consumers aren't finding particularly appealing, Sapan said.

"We see a connection between not enough captivating product on digital to make it move more quickly," he said. "There seems to be a clear logical link. On demand provides a unique opportunity for different consumer interest material.

"The technology is more engaging by definition. If you're playing with the same material — while that's a nice convenience and in some cases a value-add — it doesn't serve the long-term strategic value of what cable TV should do."

Sapan thinks the answer lies in original content across the board.

The Mag Rack portfolio contains 27 specialty on-demand video magazines. Rainbow plans to increase that number to 40 by the end of the year.

Currently, only Cablevision carries the service, but Insight Communications Co. inked a long-term distribution deal earlier this year. Insight has yet to launch the service.

Classic Cars, Sports Camp and Cook with Pros are among Mag Rack's most popular offerings. Bride, which is tied into the Primedia Inc. magazine of the same name, provides a marketing database that the print publisher will use to help drive viewer interest, Sapan said.

Sapan sees Mag Rack potentially moving from enthusiast to advocacy-type channels, including such sources as the Sierra Club, the Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sapan plans to push the same original-freshness mentality when it comes to Rainbow's more well-known linear brands.

IFC On Demand on Cablevision regularly rotates new titles into its lineup, with 20 percent to 25 percent new fare each week. Although it looks like standard SVOD fare, Sapan has bigger dreams.

IFC also owns its own film production and distribution company that has been involved in the release or production of big-screen fare including Y Tu Mama Tambien, Monsoon Wedding
and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Because it controls the film rights through the various windows, IFC has several distribution options. For example, since it owns the distribution rights, it could place movies on IFC On Demand before home video. "VOD and SVOD are rich areas for our interest," he said.

Sapan said on-demand versions of AMC, Bravo and WE are under development, but keyed to new material.

"Our bias is to do something fresh and original," Sapan said. "That doesn't mean the other isn't viable. We would think about approaching the on-demand world with a brand and offering that is fresh and adds something original or some new dimension to VOD and SVOD."

NEW MEDIUM, BRAND

Sapan said there may be some current series or movies that would not sustain a television audience, but is valuable to the aficionado, and thus could appear on an on-demand platform.

In the rush to VOD, Sapan reminds operators that the standout brands on the Internet, like Amazon.com and eBay, brought new content and services to a new medium. "We stand a chance of striking the hearts and minds of consumers that really moves them to it," Sapan said of VOD.

While time-shifted programming from linear TV will have its place in VOD, Sapan warns that digital video recording proliferation could allow consumers to replicate what operators are doing today.

"If [DVRs] proliferate and it's a commodity, I'm not sure you'll hit what cable hit in the 1980s," when a critical mass of new programming moved the industry towards the heights it enjoys today, Sapan said.

And speaking as someone who has been there and done that on the original VOD front, Sapan opined: "It's not that hard."

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