Cable operators used to gripe about being inundated with networks' mailed kits featuring upcoming programming, sales promotions and the like. Now that many major networks offer these materials via the Internet, that problem has lessened.
Programmers that have gone the affiliate Web-site route include Comedy Central, Discovery Networks U.S., ESPN, Fox Family Channel, The Golf Channel, MTV Networks, Scripps Networks, Turner Network Sales and ZDTV.
The latest are NBC Cable's CNBC and MSNBC, which launched their affiliate-only sites in April.
With all of those Web sites making the winnowing process much easier, affiliates have become more focused on choosing tie-ins, and they no longer identify themselves with that classic I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel try in vain to keep up with that relentless chocolate-factory assembly line.
ESPN director of marketing E.J. Conlin said that the network relaunched its affiliates-only Web site July 7 "to make it easier to navigate, with fewer click-throughs" to get to the information they need most. Moreover, the new site offers "as close to real-time program-schedule updates" as possible.
In another enhancement, ESPN's site now includes regional pages to enable affiliates in Denver, for example, to find out about marketing and hospitality events due in the Rocky Mountain region, she said. In addition, operators can now use the site to "contact their affiliate-sales rep 24 hours a day" via e-mail, she added.
Revamped more than one year after its initial launch, the current site now more closely resembles the graphics look of ESPN.com and ESPN's on-air look, Conlin pointed out.
The affiliate site, which has more than 4,000 users, averages 1,500 hits daily, she said, adding that 30 operators called to praise the new look within three days of its introduction.
According to the relaunch announcement from senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches, "The 'ESPN Affiliate Zone' replaces monthly paper kits as an affiliate's primary source of information for ESPN networks."
The move translates into "substantial savings" in postage and printing expenses, Conlin said. The only paper products still going to operators are ESPN's commercial-format and programming books, and they, too, are "about to be phased out," she added.
"We'll eventually have a paperless environment, hopefully by the end of the summer," ESPN director of affiliate ad sales and new business Jeff Siegel said.
Even the smallest operators have at least one PC through which to gain access to ESPN's and other networks' affiliate sites, Conlin said, adding that the materials also are "downloadable and printer-friendly."
In the recent past, "35 or 40 network-marketing kits sat in a marketing manager's office [at the system level] not being used," because there was simply too much paper to wade through, Siegel observed, including ESPN's own "pretty extensive" kits.
At the outset, he said, "Some people were resistant to change," but that gradually evaporated. The smallest systems are still among the last to go along with the move, he added, because they often may have only one person with Internet access.
For sports networks like ESPN and ESPN2, the move to the Web site was "especially important" given their more frequent schedule revisions.
The site also offers detailed research, as well as upcoming promotions, selling tips, ad slicks and co-op advertising ideas. Daily program updates are also available via the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau's CAB OnDemand Web site, he added.
A crowded session at the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing's 1996 conference dealt with network-affiliate kits.
Skip Harris, then Falcon Cable TV Corp.'s marketing vice president, demonstrated the problem when he pointed to a stack of print kits more than three feet tall-only a partial compilation-and said, "Do you really think I'd read all of this stuff? Of course not."
During that session, TNS' "Turner Advance Promotion" kits were the most widely praised by affiliates for packaging all of Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s networks in a single kit, for focusing on a handful of high-profile programs each month and for providing easily reproduced ad slicks.
Cable One Inc. vice president of ad sales Ron Pancratz said last week that the shift to electronic kits is definitely a trend within the past two years, although some print kits "still come across my desk."
Referring to his own sales managers across the country, he added, "I think they enjoy the electronic kits and CAB OnDemand. It's more into how business is done today."
An official at one top MSO, who declined to be identified, said the move toward affiliate sites was a positive one for the networks, which save on postal and printing expenses, and for affiliates, which find it easier to navigate online than to wade through mountains of printed kits.
Executives at other operators were unwilling or unavailable to comment at press time.
As for talk that ESPN and Discovery Networks intend to do away with the old-fashioned print kits, Pancratz saw that as a positive development. But, he chuckled, "Discovery has been threatening to do that for a long time."
Speaking of CAB OnDemand, CAB vice president of communications and production Steve Raddock said the Web site-which has available for well over one year to CAB members only for a $125-per-month subscription fee per individual user-has proven popular with its more than 600 member users.
The site offers "one-step access" to sales-promotion tie-in information, programming and research data, as well as links to more than 40 networks, Raddock said. Cable operators use the site for planning and for developing sales presentations, he added.
The CAB tracks usage monthly and finds that "our members are using it quite a bit," Raddock said. But, he added, "we don't discuss numbers. It's a private service."
"Saving on paper costs-of course, that's a factor," Raddock said, adding that maintaining the site is not that labor-intensive. "But allowing members easier access to important information is "a more key factor. It's a way for networks to simplify communications with affiliates. It's just a matter of common sense."
Discovery Networks senior vice president of marketing and distribution strategy Lori McFarling also saw the trend away from print kits and toward affiliate-only Web sites as a positive one that has helped to alleviate the flood of mail operators have had to cope with each month. "It's more sophisticated and user-friendly," she said.
Her company is in transition this year in moving to "a paperless approach" to that process. By Jan. 1, 2001, she said, "virtually all of our materials will be exclusively [available to affiliates] online."
"There are strong traffic numbers by affiliates" so far this year for its "business-to-business" Web site, she said, adding, "That's where the majority of our affiliates are going already."
At last month's CAB Local Cable Sales Management Conference, Discovery Networks gave out print materials on Animal Planet's upcoming "Catch Croc Fever Sweepstakes," tied to its Crocodile Hunter series, and Discovery Channel's "Extreme Shark Surfari" promotion, linked to its "Shark Week" stunt in August.
But it also gave out "iPAK" packets containing computer disks so affiliates could link to its discoveryaffiliate.com site.
TNS vice president of entertainment marketing Lisa Richardson said TNS' affiliate Web site is meant to be "a one-stop-shopping resource" for affiliates.
While it may save the company on postage, she said, Turner is leaving it up to its operators as to whether they want to receive the "conventional" TAP print kits or go to the Web site. "It depends on the affiliates," she added MTVN vice president of affiliate ad sales Jason Malamud-who claimed that his company was the first to establish an affiliate Web site, in 1996-said it did so because "our programming changes quite frequently and it's much easier" to do so online, rather than through the mail. MTVN also makes use of e-mail to keep affiliates abreast, he noted.
NEWCOMERS ARE UP
MTVN's site has already added materials for Country Music Television and The Nashville Network, which joined the group in the Viacom Inc./CBS Corp. deal, he pointed out.
The MTVN site has generated positive feedback from operators, Malamud said, although he would not go so far as to say that MTVN would eliminate the paper kits. "We have been re-evaluating them," he added. "We will be changing them, but I don't know that I'd say we'd be phasing them out."
Research information lends itself well to the online format, he said, but there are other elements that won't adapt so easily. For instance, affiliates can download marketing and promotional materials to use, he said, but "they can't use spots off the site, although they can view them on the site and then order them, as opposed to ordering them sight unseen."
As for cost savings, Malamud felt that they would be minimal and largely offset by upkeep of the Web site. Keeping the site current for all of its networks is "a herculean task," he emphasized, adding that the site "should be more than just an electronic version of the kit."
While acknowledging affiliates' gripes that they can't keep up with all of the mailed kits, Malamud said MTVN is concerned about whether operators "will go out of their way to find [materials] on the Web." He hopes that MTVN's combination of continuation of mailed kits, along with the use of the affiliate Web site and e-mails, will combine to eliminate that concern.
An executive at Fox Family said the affiliate-Web-site approach is fast catching on with operators, most of which prefer it over being deluged with print materials sent via mail.
Comedy vice president of affiliate ad sales Kurt Greves said his department eliminated paper kits Jan. 1, except for its quarterly kits that include its latest promo tapes. "And even those may go electronic," he added.
Greves said he's been urging affiliates to work with Video Networks Inc. on getting digital promo spots by satellite. Another option may be to distribute those spots via the CAB OnDemand site, he added.
"It's hard to change patterns. The fear was that operators might go ballistic" once the paper kits were dropped, he said. "But having been on the operator side [at Cox Communications Inc. until late last year], I said, 'That's not going to happen.'"
Those affiliate kits "looked pretty," he recalled, "but they were often outdated and it's not humanly possible" to sort through the kits from well over 40 basic-cable networks.
Another concern was that some small operators might lack Web access, he said, adding, "But today, who doesn't have Web access?" Sure enough, "We've received not one complaint, just kudos," he added.
Comedy still faxes notices to call attention to new elements on its Web site, but here, too, Greves said the network is moving increasingly to the paperless route by e-mailing affiliates with those updates.
That shift to the "Get-It Online" affiliate site as its "one-stop source" for programming, promotions, research and materials has meant "huge savings budgetwise," Greves said.
Those "paper-media-kit budget" savings, are instead being put into other affiliate-oriented efforts. For instance, Comedy's network-sales force is working with affiliates on driving sales down to the local level, such as with its recent Snapple Beverage Corp. experience in June, he added.
Moreover, Comedy is placing ads in such category-specific trade magazines as Automotive News to target important revenue segments for MSOs.