Broadband TV Stuck Midstream

Networks struggle to turn couch potatoes into PC plants
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Finding full episodes of TV shows on networks' broadband players can sometimes resemble a digital scavenger hunt. It can take several click-throughs just to find an episode. Worse, the video player then often spits out segments in fits and starts, leaving you suspended in an endlessly buffering purgatory and longing for the relatively minor nuisance of commercial breaks. If the networks want to lure viewers away from video-sharing sites like YouTube, where video content is far easier to find and watch, they have some work to do.

The good news is, they know it. Many report ongoing research into user satisfaction with their players. Most have already introduced a second-generation player. And there's evidence that networks are approaching something close to a standard technology in their streaming services.

Networks have made “tremendous progress” with player content and design in the past year, says Will Richmond, president/founder of Broadband Directions, a market-intelligence and consulting firm focusing on broadband video.

“We're still very early in the development of the broadband-video market,” he adds. “Everybody's kind of in experiment mode in terms of what works best.”

What works best, of course, is what's easiest to find and use. Says Richmond, “Anything that requires six clicks before you're actually watching a video is a real turnoff.”

The networks have strived to minimize clicks to finding full episodes, but you have to know where to look. “NBC Rewind,” the network's full-episode streaming service, is just one of several branded Web offerings at NBC.com. And if you're looking for Fox On Demand, try looking at News Corp.'s MySpace, not Fox.com.

Responding to feedback

Networks are finding out on their own just what consumers want through focus-group research and “usability testing,” in which isolated subjects are observed responding to prompts to complete online tasks.

ABC, the first of the broadcast networks to introduce a video player, spent the past summer analyzing feedback from its spring streaming trial before introducing an upgraded player this fall.

The network determined that it had delivered on its two main goals: to bring the highest-quality video possible to the largest number of people and to offer a “theatrical experience” more akin to watching a movie in a darkened theater than hunching over a keyboard in a cubicle, says ABC's Digital Media VP Alexis Rapo.

But consumers also asked for fewer clicks to get from the “lobby” page to the episodes. ABC's player is now designed so that users can go from the lobby to an episode in two clicks.

The network began focus-group research on the new season's player just last week and will roll out “bigger product enhancements” based on what they find. ABC also culls e-mail feedback and has its tech team adjust the code accordingly when it notes trends in comments about technical malfunctions—such as the player's tendency to freeze midstream and restart the segment.

While stand-alone or pop-up players that replicate a TV-viewing experience are popular, says Broadband Directions' Richmond, community features—like the ability to rate, e-mail and embed code for video—are also pluses.

MTV Networks' Comedy Central offers interactive elements for every video on its broadband player “Motherload.” Comedy, which tests the player quarterly, has added message boards in response to consumer comments and will relaunch the player this month with a feature that enables users to post network clips on their own Websites.

Several other networks are also planning to upgrade players with the search and community features popular on YouTube. On Oct. 1, NBC, for one, introduced a player intended to streamline navigation and improve picture quality, but the network has waited to add such extra features until it hears more from viewers about what they want.

“In terms of the functionalities [video-sharing sites] have, we have the ability to do the same thing,” says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal president of cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy. “It's just a question of when we get there and what we determine is the real need.”

Flash standard

Significantly, most networks have designed their players to operate with Flash, the Adobe Systems application that comes with most Web browsers and enables people to post clips from YouTube on their own sites. ABC and NBC use Flash, and 56 of the top 75 cable networks offer Flash-only video, according to a recent Broadband Directions report.

One notable exception is Fox, which developed its own downloadable “Fox On Demand” player. Whereas other players progressively download shows, enabling viewing that is immediate yet prone to seizing up, Fox's “Full Throttle” communicates with computers every two seconds to determine the optimum speed the computer can handle, says Ron Berryman, general manager of Fox Interactive Media Stations Group.

Fox spent eight months developing the player after finding that 25%-45% of viewers complained of buffering issues with standard players. Because some consumers have bristled at the nuisance of downloading the player, the network is developing a streaming version.

Although networks are doing their homework, it's likely to be some time before the casual TV viewer will drop the remote and reach for a mouse.

“We're all trying to make Internet television as easy as regular television,” says Eric Elia, VP of content and online services for Brightcove, which has designed broadband sites for the Discovery networks, IFC and others. “We all know it's not there yet.”

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