Cable Websites Boost Content, Tighten TV Ties

Case Study: Five Brands That Are Destinations, Not Just Add-ons

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Their days of serving as glorified TV programming guides are long gone, but cable networks' websites are still wrestling to shed their image as weak players in the digital-ad marketplace.

"For nearly every cable network I know, I can think of a stand-alone website that delivers more eyeballs and has better niche content," says Davis Brewer, manager-digital technologies at Publicis' StarLink, Chicago. "To really compete, these websites need to be major destinations, not add-ons," he says.

Most cable networks' advertising revenue from digital platforms is weak compared with their on-air offerings. But cable TV video clips are becoming hot currency online -- as evidenced by Viacom's $1 billion copyright lawsuit against Google's YouTube.

"There's a lot of untapped potential on the digital side for cable networks," says Jeff Ratner, MindShare Interaction's North American digital director, who suggests the cure may be "a lot more research and bolder moves."

Turner Entertainment President David Levy claims the cable TV industry is on the verge of a digital breakthrough. He says the networks he oversees and the sports they cover will be among the first to spotlight a new generation of cableTV-content online.

"Soon you'll see more convergence between on-air and onscreen media from our cable networks," Mr. Levy says. "Imagine watching a specific athlete ... on your computer, while simultaneously watching the broader game or the tournament on your TV," he says. "The possibilities for advertisers to be part of a more concentrated viewing cable-TV experience with digital are very exciting."

To see what's happening with cable brands online, Ad Age reviewed the following websites.

CNN
Oxyride

Three years after reorganizing CNN's on-air and online ad-sales forces for better collaboration, Greg D'Alba, the network's chief operating officer-ad sales and marketing, thinks he's got the chemistry right.

"Our on-air and online ad-sales organizations are connected at the hip," Mr. D'Alba says.

Eighty percent of CNN's on-air ad deals have a digital component, and nearly every online-video clip features a pre-roll spot of 10 to 30 seconds.

New this year are blog-sponsorship deals (Orbitz backs CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's blog) and sponsorships of magazine-like features online.

A prototype is "Life After Work," based on reporting by Paula Zahn, host of the weeknight news show "Paula Zahn Now," about retirement. Website content ranges from stories about the emotional toll of retirement and a financial-tips section, as well as users' own retirement stories. Ameriprise Financial is a sponsor.

CNN is also starting to get more traction in sponsorship of news alerts delivered to mobile handsets.

"As the platform grows and the technology improves, so does our ability to deliver high-quality ads with text messages and alerts," Mr. D'Alba says.

HGTV
hgtv

Social networking has spruced things up at HGTV.com, with the soaring popularity of Rate My Space, a user-generated site introduced earlier this year that allows people to upload photos of rooms they have decorated and ask for decorating advice. Rooms are rated on a five-star system by other users who post their critiques and offer feedback.

"Rate My Space was an immediate hit and by its third week, we decided to migrate it to TV, with tentatively plans for a show using content from the site, starting first-quarter 2008. Site users will vote on which rooms need the most help, and those will get on-air makeovers," says Jeff Meyer, senior VP-interactive ad sales, Scripps Networks.

HGTV.com sends out about 2 million weekly newsletters from HGTV.com, Mr. Meyer says.

The how-to nature of the cable network is a perfect fit for advertisers with long-form, how-to video ads, and Kohler Co., Ralph Lauren Paint and Moen are eagerly supplying them to HGTV.com; more are in the works, Mr. Meyer says.

The next frontier is personalizing the site by allowing users to store and return to their own ideas and photos, Mr. Meyer says.

GSN
Solitaire on GSN

GSN.com has fewer unique visitors each month than some other cable-TV networks' websites, but those users tend to stick around, according to GSN. The average visit to GSN.com to play a game such as solitaire is 20 minutes per session, and after midnight, many stay online for two to three hours, says Chris Raleigh, GSN's senior VP-advertising sales.

GSN.com uses mostly banner ads across a wide spectrum of categories. Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice and Nestle Purina's Tidy Cats are two examples. Mr. Raleigh says more cross-platform deals, linking on-air ads to online ads, are in the works with advertisers such as package-goods marketers.

The biggest conversion of on-air and digital is PlayMania, GSN's after-midnight program block that allows gamers to phone in, send text messages or go online to play along with on-air games. GSN says 11% of PlayMania's audience plays along at home; most use text messages. GSN tallies an average of 30,000 responses from PlayMania gamers during each two-hour program.

More choices for GSN's paid-subscription game are in the plans, he says. Most of GSN's on-air ads include a digital component, but this year GSN is hiring an executive to oversee interactive sales to maximize opportunities, Mr. Raleigh says.

Comedy Central
Comedy Central

ComedyCentral.com's role in parent Viacom's lawsuit against Google is based on the popularity of its video clips of "The Colbert Report," "The Daily Show" and "South Park."

Young adults come to the website to catch up on programs they missed, but they stay for jokes, cellphone ringtones, games, podcasts and a shopping zone.

Ads are being integrated into video content so that instead of pre-roll ads, viewers see video ads in between video clips, which has proved popular with advertisers, says Glenn Ginsburg, VP-interactive sales. A different ad is served up with each joke on Comedy Central's popular joke section.

Last month, Altoids bought a 24-hour roadblock across the site to introduce a new flavor of its mints, providing prime exposure on the site's most popular pages. Other core advertisers include AT&T, Hyundai Motor America and Kraft Foods.

New on the site are blogs, including one featuring comic David Spade offering live comments during high-profile entertainment events.

Viacom recently consolidated the online ad-sales operations for Comedy Central, Spike and TV Land into one unit targeting young men and adults.


Court TV
Court TV News
The Smoking Gun
Crime Library
Court TV

Court TV has always experienced ratings spikes during high-profile trials, but now it's working harder to woo new website visitors during hot trials, thanks to enhanced online offerings and CourtTVNews.com's subscription-only Court TV Extra broadband- video service.

While Courttv.com usually draws about 4 million unique visitors each month to its websites, the recent Anna Nicole Smith legal proceedings in Florida helped boost the number of CourtTVNews.com visitors 69% over the previous 12-month average. Extra subscribers grew 26% over the previous month.

Next year Court TV will be rebranded to emphasize enter-tainment as well as crime news, and most of the channel's newest content can be streamed online, including its Red action-video programming block. Blogs provid-ing trial commentary are also new and expanding on CourtTV.com.

Typically an advertiser buys presence across all of CourtTV.com's sites; Blockbuster is a recent high-profile sponsor. Turner Entertainment plans to name a new chief of interactive advertising this spring, and David Levy, president of Turner Enter-tainment sales and marketing, says he expects the move will result in more cross-platform deals including Court TV.
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