CABLE IS BIG HIT ON WEB

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If you build it on the World Wide Web, will they come?

If you're a hot, youth-oriented cable network, the answer so far seems to be unequivocably yes.

Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, ESPN, fX, Sci-Fi Channel and NewsTalk Television have all recently launched glitzy Web sites, often described by network executives as "new channels" on the Internet.

Full of splashy color, campy humor and layers and layers of information, cable TV Web sites are surprisingly among the coolest places to be in cyberspace.

ESPN's ESPNet SportsZone (http://espnet.sportszone.com), open for only a few months, already is one of the most heavily trafficked Web sites, netting eight million "hits" (the number of times files are accessed, not the number of users) per week. Sci-Fi Channel's Dominion (http://www.scifi.com) has an average of just under a million hits a week, while Comedy Central (http://www.comcentral.com) racked up 2.1 million hits for the month of June.

But does all that online traffic translate into more viewers for the core TV product? So far, cable executives aren't sure. They insist the Web sites are more than just a promotional avenue for the TV networks; in some cases they're a whole separate brand designed to reach a new audience.

"At first it was promotional and experimental, but now it is pure brand extension. New media will soon begin to generate revenue," said Ellen Kaye, VP-advertising and promotion at USA Networks, parent of Sci-Fi Channel and USA Network.

Industry analysts say the Web is perfect for cable because Web sites, like cable networks, often draw users with niche interests in a certain subject area.

"Cable is better at using [the Web] to target a demographic group," said Steve Harman, analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, Carmel, Calif. "For the most part cable companies are entrepreneur-driven; they can use the Web to extend their identity."

"This is the way most networks are going," Ms. Kaye said. USA's Sci-Fi Channel unveiled the Dominion March 1, a site positioned as the "home base" for sci-fi buffs.

The result has been the creation of areas to let science-fiction fans shop, find sci-fi news and sample series spinoffs such as a computer version of "The Village," spun off of "The Prisoner," with puzzles, a poll, photos and audio tracks from the series.

Sci-Fi and the Dominion will extend a late-night test of interactive PC-to-TV into the evening lineup this fall. During the summer, Sci-Fi provided computer users the opportunity to respond to "The Prisoner" in real time by typing comments online that then appeared across the bottom of the TV screen.

The result is "On-Line Showcase," a weekly one-hour series of rotating shows such as "Lost in Space," "Six Million Dollar Man" and "Swamp Thing." The new series makes its debut Sept. 29 and will be scheduled Fridays at 10 p.m. (ET).

Some cable networks plan to take the subscription model to cyberspace, testing whether people who pay to receive the networks on TV will also pay to access them online.

ESPNet next month will begin a subscription service for serious sports buffs who want deeper information and databases than the free Web service provides. "Premium access" services will cost less than $10 per month, said Thomas Hagopian, general manager of ESPN Enterprises and ESPNet.

The Discovery Channel's site (http://www.discovery.com), one of the most comprehensive Web sites of all, launched as a free service last month to promote trial. Come Sept. 1, the site becomes a $24-per-year subscription service that Discovery hopes will attract viewers who haven't yet been on the Internet.

MTV: Music Television will hatch a Web presence called Global MTV next month. In the meantime, the cable network unveiled a revamped site on the commercial service America Online in July to keep browsers busy.

Despite all the activity, cable network executives are mum on whether the online efforts are helping Nielsen ratings.

Most executives said a Web site can not only promote network viewing but extend the amount of time a viewer spends with the cable network as a brand.

"There's no way to tell yet what an audience boost might come from," said Larry Divney, senior VP-ad sales at Comedy Central. "We have not yet run tests exclusively designed to measure what's happening online."

Broadcast networks are finding the Web an attractive place to market as well, but recognize they may not have the ability to target niche audiences the way cable networks can.

"We're trying to take a large group of audience viewers and channel them into different communities of interest," said Josh Grotstein, VP-general manager of NBC Online Ventures, which has a site on the Web (http://www.nbc.com) and a presence on AOL but is saving up its big guns for its alliance with Microsoft Network.

CBS' Web presence (http://www.cbs.com) is "not a new channel" said George Schweitzer, the network's exec VP-marketing and communications.

"Our main business is TV broadcasting. Everything we do extends from that," he said. "We're going to use our site to aggressively promote our new broadcast season with particular attention to `Central Park West.' Part of the plot is that the characters work at a magazine-so we're going to create it online."

Wayne Walley of Electronic Media contributed to this story.

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