Original content gives cable impact on the Web

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The cable TV industry has expanded beyond the confining limits of the set-top box and has aggressively jumped onto the World Wide Web.

Cable network executives are not only strengthening the brand identity of their core cable product, they're creating an online audience in addition to their TV audiences--and, in some cases, making a profit.

"From the beginning, we thought of the site as a viable network of its own, not the marketing department's pet rock," says Tom Hagopian, general manager of ESPN's ESPNET SportsZone. "It has been a brand extension in and of itself ... It's not a promotional vehicle."


Discovery Channel, ESPN, Sci-Fi Channel, Weather Channel and CNN are among the most successful in crossing over to the new medium. These outlets provide extensive original content--and eschew the promotional Web site model favored by broadcast networks.

"Cable is one of the great success stories of the Web," says Dan Stone, exec VP-marketing & sales at Turner Interactive, parent of the CNN Interactive, CNNfn and All Politics sites, among the most trafficked sites on the Web.

"It is for the same reasons cable networks are successful with specialized programming. The Web is a specialized 24-hour network for niche interest," he says.

No site reflects this more than Sci-Fi Channel's The Dominion [www.scifi.com], which made its debut in March 1995. The site receives about 12,000 visits daily and aims to be the home base for science fiction buffs online.

Content on the site is approximately 80% original material; the other 20% concerns on-air programming. The site features original science fiction literature and comics, an area to download graphics, photos, video and audio clips, and a bulletin board.


"The site supports our mission of making our brand the authority on the sci-fi world, and it serves to strengthen our on-air image," says Ellen Kaye, senior VP-enterprises at USA Networks, parent of Sci-Fi.

Dominion recently held a 72-hour online science fiction convention, where every element from a typical convention was converted online. The convention included chats with celebrities, a film festival, memorabilia offerings, virtual autographs and even an online costume ball, which took place in a three-dimensional environment.

The convention garnered 1 million page views, and Ms. Kaye expects to retain about a third of newcomers to the site from the convention.

The Weather Channel, which has averaged about 12 million page views per month since its April 1995 introduction, has given its online audience a lot more to talk about than just the weather, or at least more weather to talk about.

The site features frequently updated forecasts and satellite maps in addition to travel reports, skiers' forecasts and weather news.

"The strength of the brand and content translates well from cable into online," says Debora Wilson, president-new media. "Consumers look for us on the Web, and trust us, and know us and use us."

The Web sites of some networks are making a mark not only with content, but also on the bottom line.

ESPNET SportsZone gets 400,000 visitors a day and has around 40,000 subscribers to its paid services also on the site, according to industry analysts. ESPN, which charges subscribers $39.95 a year, is one of the only networks that's made money on its site through advertising banners, subscriptions and merchandise sales.

ESPNET's audience is 82% men between 18-34, which skews younger than the audiences of ESPN and ESPN2.

CNN Interactive broke even this year, with more than 20 advertisers on the site at a time and millions in revenue this year. Executives of the site expect ad revenues to increase 250% next year.


ESPN ranked ninth among all sites in ad revenue for the year through September, and was tops in cable with $4.1 million, according to Jupiter Communications. CNN, meanwhile, ranked 15th, with $2.7 million in revenues.

"We've blown away any guarantees we've issued and far surpassed our own expectations," Mr. Stone says.

Still, supervisors of most sites continue to talk about profitability in rather vague terms, and absolutely no one will talk in specifics.

The Discovery Channel's online presence, Discovery Online, has recently won the Cool Site of the Year award from InfiNet, an Internet company, and has about 28,000 visitors a day to the site. However, despite selling out sponsorships in November and December and pulling in $717,000 in ad revenue, according to Jupiter, Discovery has yet to turn a profit, says Tom Hicks, publisher-general manager of Discovery Online.

"We are optimistic that by 1999 or 2000 we will be profitable, but it depends on how fast advertisers come on board," Mr. Hicks says. "The level of support is just not there yet, like in other [media]. It took a long time for advertisers to tap cable televsion and advertisers are just now checking it out and exploring how to make the Web work for their brands."


Yet not all applications are solely for consumer use.

Turner Broadcasting Sales' Turner Mania site is a business-to-business locale that helps ad agency executives expedite decisions on sponsorships and ad purchases.

The password-protected site offers extensive information on Turner properties' sponsorship opportunities, ratings data for all its programs, listings of Turner account teams, and even a database of over 600 downloadable images to use in presentations.

Currently the site is being tested at various Young & Rubicam, TN Media and DDB Needham Worldwide offices. It's expected to be available to all Turner's agency clients by December.

"This is about retasking work and making it easier to communicate with buyers as a group" says Barry Fischer, exec VP-marketing & research, Turner Broadcasting Sales. "It makes a complex and onerous task smarter, easier and simpler. The goal is to make it a practical tool to give the company more access to its customers."

Copyright December 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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