Mobile, online: Cable looks to fill all video screens

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

By Nancy Giges

As technology makes video content available on more devices and in more places, cable networks are scrambling to satisfy a seemingly insatiable consumer hunger for video not only on the TV screen but extending far beyond it.

Call it cable—everywhere.

"People are watching video more than ever before," says Colleen Fahey Rush, exec VP-strategic insights and research for Viacom's MTV Networks. "At the same time, TV keeps growing, and across all age groups. In fact, 12-to-34-year-olds have added 30 more minutes to their TV time in the past decade. A lot of people think the opposite is the case, but it's not."

According to Nielsen Co.'s Three Screens report, the average American watched more than 151 hours of television shows (live viewing plus DVR playback within seven days) per month in the fourth quarter of 2008, up from 146 hours a year earlier. At the same time, those consumers who viewed TV online watched about three hours per month, while those viewing on mobile watched about four hours on mobile devices.

For TV networks, there is just no evidence that a substantial number of people are leaving the TV set to watch online, says Alan Wurtzel, president-research and media development at NBC Universal. If anything, many cable executives maintain, the availability of content on online and mobile screens serves to enhance the primary viewing experience.

Steve Gigliotti, exec VP-ad sales and emerging media for Scripps Networks, says his company's networks ended the first quarter with record ratings on air and online video usage up 116 percent from the previous year. "So we're growing in both places," he says. The results of one of the most ambitious studies of media habits ever undertaken, released in March, supports the contention that the popularity of video content is growing across all distribution points. The research was conducted on behalf of the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence by Ball State University's Center for Media Design and Sequent Partners. One central finding is that while consumers watch 5.5 hours of live TV a day, they access video on their computers for an average of two minutes a day, adding to their overall viewing.

Among other key findings:

  • Live TV led all video time by a large margin, followed by DVDs, then DVRs.
  • Younger baby boomers, 45 to 54 years old, consume the most total media (just more than nine hours per day) while the average for all other age groups was "strikingly similar," at about eight hours.
  • Computers have replaced radio as the No. 2 media activity.
  • A higher percentage of TV time made up the viewer's sole medium usage time compared with computers, print or audio.

The cable networks point to these types of findings as reasons to be optimistic about their future. Says Kyoo Kim, VP-sales for "There are a lot of different screens. That's what the advertisers are looking for. If they're advertising on cable, they want ownership of the same vertical opportunity online."

Mr. Gigliotti says Scripps embraces online video as part of the value offered to viewers. "That also turns out to be of value for our advertisers," he says. He views both online and mobile as being in the early stages of their development as media. "Scripps is very keen on both of them, and we're looking at adaptations. We are long down that road," he says.

Full episodes of its TV shows account for less than 10 percent of Scripps Networks' online content. Mr. Gigliotti describes Scripps' strategy for connecting the on-air and online components of its networks—which include HGTV, Food Network and DIY Network—as taking a hand-and-glove approach, with online video complementing and supporting TV shows. On-air programs for the Food Network, for example, are designed for people to enjoy watching the preparation of a meal, not to write down a recipe. The place to go for the recipe is online. "That's the same for HGTV and DIY," he says.

Mr. Gigliotti says he sees "tremendous adaptations" for mobile video for Scripps' brands. If a consumer is heading home and thinking about dinner, for instance, she can access a recipe and video instructions on her way home—and then stop at the store to buy the ingredients. "That's a benefit to our consumers and, frankly, a great benefit to our advertisers," he says.

NBC Universal, whose cable networks include Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, Oxygen, Syfy and USA, gained insight into the relationship of the three screens—TV, computer and mobile—from research conducted while offering 2008 Summer Olympics coverage on all three screens. The findings indicated that Web and mobile users were the most avid sports fans, watching twice as much Olympics content on the TV screen as those who didn't use the Web and mobile.

"It's not an original thought that we want our programming to be everywhere our users and viewers are," says Mark Lukasiewicz, VP-digital media at NBC News, who supervises the NBC News relationship with as well as content on NBC Mobile, iTunes and other initiatives in digital media. But, he adds, that doesn't mean "everything everywhere," even though makes entire programs available to consumers.

People generally don't use the computer as a substitute for watching programming on TV—mainly because they are in an interactive mode online, Mr. Lukasiewicz says. "They are hunting around. They may want to look at a segment they heard about, something their friend told them about, so they 'snack' a little more," he says. "For us, it's about recognizing that when someone comes to one of our great cable programs or anchors and says, 'I like that,' we want [to give them access] in places other than that beautiful flat screen."

An example of just how ubiquitous MSNBC is trying to make programs is "The Rachel Maddow Show," its hottest property. In addition to watching clips online and reading transcripts of on-air interviews, fans can find Ms. Maddow on Facebook, Twitter or her own Web site. Consumers can have two-way conversations with her on message boards, subscribe to or download podcasts, sign up for text alerts, download ringtones, watch the show on a cell phone—and the list goes on. Next up for "Rachel" is probably an iPhone app, Mr. Kim says.

The rich media experience offered on an iPhone, and other new mobile technologies in the pipeline, will spur even more mobile video consumption, Mr. Wurtzel says.

New technologies also provide ways to connect throughout the day and across multiple platforms. One tool that was among the first to introduce (and others have followed with) is an embeddable player that a blogger or online commentator can use to show a cable network's video directly on the commentator's Web site instead of following a link. The advantage to the commentator is that the viewer doesn't leave his or her site. The advantage to the cable network is that since the video plays from the network's server, it counts as a video play and any advertising on the bottom of that screen is the network's Web advertising.

"It's a great new tool to reach a much broader audience, to enable bloggers and other Web sites to [use] our content but to recognize that we get to capture some of the value and the advertiser gets associated with the content in a controlled way," Mr. Lukasiewicz says.

Beth Rockwood, senior VP-market resources, Discovery Networks, says Discovery also has been "working really hard on coming up with strategies and growing some of these newer platforms." Last month, as part of sponsoring Discovery Channel's Alaska Week, Post's Trail Mix Crunch cereal combined on-air and online components centering around a competition among four contestants vying to win the ultimate Hawaiian vacation in the "Trail Mix Crunch Alaskan Adventure Challenge."

Although not yet as sizable as TV, video-on-demand has been growing for Discovery by "leaps and bounds," Ms. Rockwood says. Children's programming, travel and health programming do especially well. "We're building that up and distributing that content [both short form and complete programs] through syndicated services such as AOL and Yahoo!" she says.

MTV Networks is also capitalizing on the marketing advantages of cross-platform. "It's not just running a 30-second spot in different types of media," says Nada Stirratt, exec VP-digital advertising, who oversees digital sales operations for online, mobile and multiplatform advertising across all properties, including CMT, Comedy Central, Gametrailers, Logo, MTV, Nickelodeon, Shockwave, Spike and VH1. "We give marketers who want to reach a fan of a particular program the opportunity to own that experience no matter where the content appears for a particular period of time."

Last fall, Spike TV, working with advertiser Burger King, did a live simulcast of the 2008 Video Game Awards, giving the audience the chance to "watch the show your way," integrating Burger King's "Have it your way" theme. Viewers at could choose among four different camera angles to watch the show, including one that showed behind-the-scenes footage.