See Spot Run: Interactive Fare Bows and Wows

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The latest evolution for cable video-on-demand service is moving from customer-see to customer-do, with a wave of interactive channels popping up that let users land a date, warble their own version of “Over the Rainbow” and find a new pet, job or home.

The trend is yet another example of how on-demand service has developed from a virtual video store to more attention-grabbing offerings aimed at keeping customers tuned in.

One example of this new interactive content can be found in the career on-demand video service developed by Time Warner Cable San Antonio.

Developed by the system's human resources department, Careers on Demand launched late last spring as a Time Warner employee recruitment tool. The service gives subscribers the ability to view the profiles of a half-dozen job openings, from customer service to field operations.

In the videos, Time Warner staffers guide would-be employees through the workplace and tell them what the job involves. It also provides information about how to apply for the positions.

The video format “provides that sense of visual that you can never get from reading a job application or a description in the classified section,” said Jon Gary Herrera, vice president of government and public affairs for Time Warner's San Antonio system.

The service's forthcoming second generation will offer expanded videos, showing a position's typical workday.

“So for example, when we want to do [a spot] for an installer, we're going to go out and follow an installer around,” Herrera said. “It gives that important sense of what an installer's job looks like.”

So far, the job spots are only for Time Warner, but the service has caught the interest of other San Antonio employers, Herrera said. That's one reason it was dubbed Careers on Demand, to allow for the potential of expanding it to other businesses.

“We are going to get into some dialogs with other employers here in San Antonio that would be interested in it, particularly taking the same approach and tactic as we are taking,” he said.

Comcast Corp., meanwhile, is actively developing a whole raft of creative VOD-only offerings under the Select On Demand banner. Its first experiment with this new line of content is Dating on Demand, launched in 2004 in Philadelphia.

The service offers a list of eligible dates arranged by gender and age group. Viewers can select an individual's profile and watch a 3-to-4-minute video introduction of the person, as well as view text information. At the bottom of the screen is a user name through which interested viewers can send an e-mail message to their potential date.

“That was immediately a hit for us based on usage, and it quickly grew — we expanded into seven of our local markets, and from there we created a national version of this service,” Comcast vice president of content acquisitions and development Matt Strauss said. “So at the moment you have Dating on Demand in every Comcast market in some form — it's either a national version, or a local version.”

'Date' Spin Off

Dating on Demand also spawned its own linear TV show called On a Date, which airs on CN8, Comcast's regional network. The program selects two dating subjects and sends them on a date complete with video camera crew.

“It all stemmed from this notion of taking the Internet and video on demand and marrying them together to create this new version of dating,” said Strauss.

That also extended to Comcast's next select nonlinear content project, Karaoke on Demand, which offers a lineup of pre-recorded music and lyrics placed on a video background just like a commercial karaoke machine. Viewers can then sing along, or tap into video programs offering singing lessons.

Comcast tested the new concept in May 2005, timed with the finale of Fox's American Idol. It offered 10 karaoke songs and some voice lesson video, and just as with Dating on Demand, with little promotion it generated big viewer request numbers topping 800,000 views nationwide.

Comcast since has expanded Karaoke on Demand to include dozens of songs ranging from rock to country, and “the service has proven to be a popular offering for us,” Strauss said.

“The idea of taking a digital cable box and converting it into a karaoke machine seemed like a natural extension,” he added.

For now, that requires users to access content through the TV and a separate home computer, but down the road as set-top boxes potentially gain an Internet connection capability, it could merge onto the TV set entirely.

“In many respects we are starting to take advantage of the on-demand technology today, but understanding that as it evolves, so will the content services,” Strauss said. “As interactivity grows, we will be better suited to take advantage of that interactivity, because we are starting to build those content services today.”

This spring Comcast debuted ExerciseTV, a collection of exercise and fitness information videos. Next up is Real Estate On Demand, which it started testing last year in Philadelphia in partnership with Prudential Real Estate.

Real Estate On Demand offers properties for sale grouped in three categories based on price, from $400,000 or less to $700,000 or more. The service used the property pictures Prudential already offered online as a sort of slide show.

Not only does the local aspect of Real Estate On Demand differentiate Comcast's on-demand offerings from telco competitors, but it also presents a new revenue stream. While he won't release particulars, Strauss said Comcast did strike a deal with Prudential, and it could seek similar arrangements with other realtors.

“It is a profitable venture for us in Philadelphia,” Strauss noted. “We started this in 2005, and Prudential renewed in 2006, so I would like to think that it has been a profitable service for them as well.”

Ad Prospects

About 95% of Comcast On Demand content is free, and that includes the select content. But channels like Real Estate on Demand could have the potential to add more revenue through partnerships and sponsorships, Strauss noted. The ExerciseTV channel already has pulled down two lucrative, seven-figure sponsorship deals with New Balance and Gatorade.

With the addition of a VOD measurement and rating system provided by Rentrak Corp., Comcast's On Demand, including the select content, will be open for advertising — and the revenue that could generate.

“We really are being very cautious about how we insert advertising, because I think there is a win-win,” Strauss said. “So we are experimenting and it is in the very early stages, but we do think we can add advertising to the On Demand platform in a way we've never been able to do before.”

Real Estate On Demand has started to branch out to other markets, including Chicago and Denver. In addition, Comcast has since added video luxury house tours.

Comcast also is developing a pet adoption service for Select On Demand. The operator recently partnered with the Philadelphia ASPCA, and in a test now underway it is offering video profiles of dogs and cats up for adoption. As with Dating On Demand, the animal's name and an identifying number are listed along with contact information for the ASPCA.

“This really came about as a community service, as a way to help call more attention to the animals that are up for adoption locally,” Strauss said.

It's another content success, he added. After just two months, with new pets added every other week, 60% of the animals profiled have been adopted.

The numbers provide proof of these services' popularity. Since 2005, the select nonlinear content including Dating On Demand, Karaoke On Demand, Real Estate On Demand and the pet adoption service have generated 165 million programs viewed.

“These programs are getting watched,” Strauss said. “165 million is not an insignificant number in the aggregate.”