Revved-Up Video

Loosening constraints, nets show newfound creativity in wide array of broadband plays

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William Shatner is hot-on broadband.

The former Star Trekker was roasted on Comedy Central one Sunday night in August. But while those ratings were certainly respectable, it was on the network's broadband channel, MotherLoad, that clips of Mr. Shatner's roast broke traffic records.

According to Comedy Central, content related to the Shatner roast accounted for 142,000 of the streams generated on Aug. 21, which is the best single-day performance of any show on the broadband channel since MotherLoad's launch a year ago.

It's no surprise: Broadband is hot right now, with both networks and consumers. And it's not just cable-the Scripps Networks, ESPNs, CNNs and MTV Networks-leading the way. The Big 4 have all launched broadband plays.

While revenue from these "TV 2.0" efforts is relatively small-$385 million this year, according to BMO Capital Markets-they certainly proved selling points in the upfront and are intended to play a part in scatter deals all year long.

"This sort of reminds me of 15 years ago when networks started buying cable entities," says Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national electronic media, Optimedia. "The money was going there so they had to either try to continue to control the world or let somebody else control it. Now it's similar circumstances except with social networks and creating broadband channels."

ABC was the first network to test an ad-supported direct-to-consumer broadband play at its site, ABC.com, where in May and June it pushed shows such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives." AT&T, Cingular, Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Unilever's Suave, Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures participated in the trial . Research by ABC showed ad recall hovered around 87%, compared with 24% for average TV recall.

The network claimed 16 million streams for the two months, although it's worth noting that every time a commercial ended a viewer had to click to return to the program, thus instigating a new stream. Thus, one viewer watching one show could account for up to four streams. ABC has promised the offering will return in the fall with added features.

More recently, CBS announced plans to air several of its top shows on its Innertube broadband channel. Innertube already airs several original programs, which CBS Digital President Larry Kramer says is essential to help drive adoption. It is even likely to turn into an incubator for the network, a trend that is already under way in cable. And the network is experimenting with ad models.

"We hope to have situations where users can pick their advertisers out of several available choices," Mr. Kramer says. "We're treating it like a lab. While it's really good as a way to deliver our existing programming to someone who missed it, it's also a different kind of medium-it's interactive. And we want to learn how to program for it. Doing original programming is a step in that direction."

NBC is experimenting with several schemes. It has launched a joint venture with its affiliates, called the National Broadband Co.-or NBBC-charged with figuring out how to monetize video from affiliates, NBCU and users through aggregating and syndication. It's creating original fare in and around its iVillage brand, which the network acquired shortly before the upfront. NBC said it took in about $50 million in digital dollars during the upfront selling season.

Fox, in the meantime, will stream several shows through its local sites in an attempt to drive locally targeted ad sales. It also plans to offer digital downloads of some of its series on MySpace.

When it comes to cannibalization, most networks are clear: Broadband is additive to linear TV viewing. According to BMO's analysis, TV viewing, or perhaps more generically video viewing, could increase by 15% to 20% thanks to all the new ways consumers can get access.

To see it in action, take a look at CNN, which was one of the first TV networks to offer broadband video online, first in a subscription model. Now it has both a free ad-supported offering and a subscription one.

"The key is digital isn't cannibalizing TV at all but creating new revenue streams," says Greg D'Alba, exec VP-chief operating officer for ad sales and marketing at CNN Ad Sales. He says it's important for networks to be online if they want to stay relevant to a younger, digital savvy audience. "It's the tail wagging the dog. I attribute our brand relevance to the millions of users online."
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