Trying to capitalize on the growing urban market, Russell Simmons is behind the first video-on-demand channel targeting a hip-hop audience. DoD-which started life as Def on Demand but has since morphed into an acronym-launches Nov. 11 on Comcast and will be available in 10 million homes.
The network was created as a solution to "the bottleneck between fans and producers" of urban content, said Will Griffin, CEO of Simmons Lathan Media Group, the force behind DoD. Hip-hop content abounds, he said, but there's not enough room on mainstream broadcast media to play it all. "Technology has made it possible to present content directly to fans without the middle man," he said. "We've become the programmers."
SLMG is the urban entertainment company, co-founded by Mr. Simmons and TV producer Stan Lathan, whose credits include HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" and feature films such as "How to be a Player."
Mr. Simmons, who made his name in the music and fashion industries, has long been advocating that brands pay attention to the urban market. According to research from SLMG, the 45 million consumers who listen to urban music and buy urban fashion are 80% white. They're also tech-savvy-"hip-hop is some of the most popular music on iTunes," Mr. Griffin said.
The VOD network, which partnered with Clear Channel Entertainment to sell advertising, has signed initial sponsors including Reebok's RBK brand, Coca-Cola's Sprite and General Motors, which will market Chevrolet's Impala and HHR models. Each marketer will run 30-second spots throughout programming and be integrated into VJ-hosted interstitials. A VJ could be shooting on-location at an event, for example, when an HHR will roll into the background.
Too overt? Mr. Griffin thinks not. In fact, he said the VJs themselves will plug the advertising, touting that the content is free because it's underwritten by Chevy or RBK or Sprite. "The audience accepts that because everyone knows there's no such thing as something for nothing," he said.
The ultimate goal for the sponsorship deals, which are all at least a year long, is for the advertisers to create their own branded content to air on the channel. At its launch, DoD will air a short-form program produced by Chevy, featuring Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village. The group appeared in the automaker's national TV and radio campaigns for the 2006 Impala and HHR.
RBK, meanwhile, will package extra footage shot while filming commercials and live events into a series of programs that will air on DoD. It most recently hosted a party celebrating Allen Iverson's tenth year in the NBA and will cull footage from the event for the on-demand network.
"Our philosophy with the sponsors is to find partners who have shown over time they're interested in hip-hop," said Mr. Griffin. "When the fans see the messages, they wouldn't be put off by the idea that those brands are around because [the brands] have engaged in the community."
And if they build it, will an audience come? One positive indication is the way urban formats have trended up in the radio industry. In the last five years, the number of listeners tuned into the format is up more than 30%.
One reason SLMG wanted to partner with Comcast was its presence in 22 of the top 25 markets. Mr. Griffin has plans to get DoD carried by other cable operators as well as offered through online services such as Google Video and Yahoo Video.
And there's no doubt that VOD continues to find favor on Madison Avenue, especially when used to target younger, more technologically adept viewers.
"I don't think you can ever say there's anything that the youth audience won't be engaged in," said Ed Gentner, senior VP-group director, national broadcast, MediaVest.