Cable's Gen Next

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Few cable networks must be innovative, entertaining and provide "relevant-to-my-life programming that is not offered anywhere else," says media consultant Jill Rosengard.

A jarring 50-plus cable TV networks have launched or planned to launch between summer 1999 and summer 2000, according to data compiled by National Cable Television Association.

Still, in many systems the cable dial is full; clearly, the prize of cable access vastly outstrips the risk.

VYING FOR VIEWERS

Two decades ago there were barely 30 cable networks in 23% of TV households. By the end of the year there will be 185, estimates the NCTA. Considering the proliferation of networks vying for viewers, upcoming launches from the Boat Channel to the Senior Citizens Television Network have a step to climb if they want to have a brand as recognizable as the 20-year-old acronymic CNN and ESPN.

One way many planned or recently launched cable networks are trying to stand above the rest is by integrating their TV programming with content on their Web site. Networks immersed in convergence include Health Network and ZDTV, a technology-focused operation created by computer magazine publisher Ziff-Davis (and sold in November to Vulcan Ventures headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen).

Similar programs support the National Basketball Association's NBA.com TV, the forthcoming soap opera network Soap City and much-hyped women's channel Oxygen Media, all of which are actually extensions of established Websites.

"Our [cable] content is tied entirely with the Internet," says Debra Smul, a VP at Oxygen Media, which will offer a content mix on parenting, food, finance, relationships, politics and education when the network launches in February. "With our signature show, `Pure Oxygen,' you will be able to talk to us live on the Internet, and we will be responding live to your questions on the air. Eventually you'll be able to look at some of our shows on the Internet."

"A Web strategy is extremely important for cable networks in building brand awareness and loyalty," says Ms. Rosengard, director-client development at Frank M. Magid Associates, a media research consultancy that has worked with more than 20 new cable channel launches in the last five years. "A channel can still succeed without a Web site based on its on-air positioning and programming, but a strong Web strategy will enhance that," she says.

SWIVEL POTATOES

The producers of ZDTV, which has entered 14 million households since its May 1998 launch, believe they are on the cutting edge of convergence. They even refer to their viewers as "swivel-potatoes" because they are simultaneously plugged into the ZDTV Website and channel. Basically every program on the network solicits and reveals e-mail and video mail on the air within seconds of receipt. ZDTV even shows the video mail images, giving viewers their 15-seconds of fame. Responses are not only given on air, but are often typed back in online chats to let viewers know their opinions are valued.

"We're delivering a sense of community through convergence," says Joe Gillespie, chief operating officer-exec VP at ZDTV, which also offers video streams of its programs at its Website. "When you're reading [online] a news story like Bill Gates' keynote, you can click on the Real Video [icon] and play a vignette from ZDTV news of his keynote."

BATTLE FOR ATTENTION

At the NBA.com Web site one can view highlights from various games or talk shows aired on the network, which launched on DirecTV in November. At theHealthNetwork.com, visitors can even view live simulcast surgical procedures airing on Health Network, which launched this summer.

"Data recently suggested that a fair number of consumers actually do both at the same time -- playing with computers while watching TV -- so this makes sense," says Kathy Biro, CEO at Strategic Interactive Group, an interactive consultancy. "But I think it's not terribly fabulous for the advertiser. It will be hard to divert the customer to the advertising since the battle for the customer's attention just got that much more ferocious. A level of inventiveness will be required."

In this convergence environment, Health Network and ZDTV believe they are providing innovative options for marketers. The Health Network sells sponsorships to various programs on its network with the option of signing on for a 3-month, 6-month or indefinite sponsorship of the Web version. With the indefinite combo-pack, a sponsor's ad could be evergreen.

LIVE-TO-WEB

ZDTV is pushing what it calls "live-to-Web." An on-air ad, for say computer peripheral marketer egghead.com, starts out like a regular 30-second spot. Then midway through it announces "go to egghead.com right now to order a printer for a dollar."

"What we've done is created a doughnut where we drop in a live ZDTV shot," says Mr. Gillespie. "Advertisers love this because they can change their creative up to 100 times a day. They can change the prices [or] the product offer."

"This is just the beginning," says Optimum Media President Page Thompson, who also serves as DDB Worldwide media director. He contends technology will allow viewers to receive more information about products they see on a TV program. "If it is a sweater an individual is wearing [on a TV program] that they like, they can go back to the Website, click on the program, and click on the item to find out more information [about purchasing it.]"

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