Trickling Traffic Forces Bud.TV to Revamp Site

Brewer to Add More Bells and Whistles, but Firewall Will Remain

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Hoping to draw more viewers to its pioneering online TV network after traffic fell sharply in March following an underwhelming February, Anheuser-Busch is adding more bells and whistles to Bud.TV.

The declining audience figures appear to give further credence to earlier concerns that A-B's age-verification measures are an obstacle to reaching a mass audience.

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The brewer plans to load on video-sharing capabilities, full-screen video, a desktop notifier application, new programming and a heavy promotional push to boost viewership, Advertising Age has learned. But the biggest obstacle to the channel gaining traction isn't likely to change -- its controversial and restrictive age-verification firewall. A-B executives have said the firewalls keep legal-age drinkers out, but a group of state attorneys general have complained the firewalls aren't sufficiently impenetrable.

The attorneys general argue A-B has more responsibility to avoid marketing to youth as a content producer and purveyor than it does as a mere advertiser.

Flagging viewership
March audience numbers for Bud.TV suggest some sort of change is desperately needed. Bud.TV drew 152,000 unique visitors in March, 40% fewer than February's 253,000 visitors, according to ComScore Media Metrix. A-B executives have said they hope to draw between 2 million and 3 million visitors a month by early next year to the online network, which is costing the brewer somewhere between $30 million and $40 million.

Quantcast, a separate ratings service, said the site was the 49,303rd busiest on the web, just ahead of pornography site, and just behind, which bills itself as a "comprehensive source for sheet rubber." That's down steeply from February's 29,840th showing and an even further cry from the top-100 ranking A-B executives hope to ultimately secure for the site. A third web-ratings service, Alexa, also showed steep traffic declines during March.

A-B VP-Global Media Tony Ponturo declined to comment on ratings.

Verification obstructions
But the declining audience figures appear to give further credence to earlier concerns that A-B's age-verification measures -- which force users to supply information from a driver's license or other state-issued identification -- are an obstacle to reaching a mass audience.

Those concerns were exacerbated in February, when a group of state attorneys general wrote A-B a letter telling it that those measures -- while more than most other alcohol marketers offered online -- weren't sufficient because, as a content creator and purveyor, A-B now had a greater burden not to market to youth than it did as just an advertiser. According to two people familiar with the matter, neither the attorneys general nor A-B has taken any additional action.

The coming promotional push will tout a number of new programs on the network, including shows tied to sportscaster Joe Buck, comedian Vince Vaughn and actor Kevin Spacey, as well as a satirical game show called "Hardly News," for which A-B executives have high hopes.

Stale content
Age-verification concerns aside, the network's biggest problem has been a lack of compelling content. In an interview last month, Mr. Ponturo said the early content lacked that "wow factor," and Bud.TV would need a hit to boost traffic. But that clearly hasn't happened; Bud.TV videos dropped into YouTube have generally been met with little, if any interest, if their anemic number of views is any indication.

(One hopeful exception is the network's post-apocalyptic drama serial, "Afterworld," which grabbed more than 143,000 YouTube views of a recent episode. The series "Replaced by a Chimp" has been less successful, as a recent episode showing a chimp doing an advertising executive's job drew only 384 views.)

Bud.TV's performance is the subject of widespread interest among media and marketing professionals because it is the first attempt by a marketer to launch a full-scale TV network online. But consumers don't seem nearly as piqued.

Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, which measures online buzz through tools such as BlogPulse, said Bud.TV hasn't made much of a stir online. "It's generated very little discussion, even relative to other things they do, like Bud ads," said Mr. Blackshaw. "It is not penetrating at the level you'd expect."
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