Cable execs ponder making Web pay

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Chicago - After a series of failed experiments and an imploding online ad market, executives in charge of cable Web sites have learned some hard lessons about how to make them financially viable.

In a panel session at the NCTA show in Chiacgo on Sunday, most agreed that a media company should run internal Web operations separate from its cable channel, or at least employ a separate creative and administrative staff, if it wants to get the most from its investment. To help improve overall financial health, the primary goal of a cable channel Web site, they say, should be to support a channel's on-air brand.

Yet, how do you continue to gain financial support from your company when banner ads and cross-platform strategies are loosing favor every day? Ron Feinbaum, vice president of Interactive Services at Scripps Networks, explains that for his division, "our main goal is to help our various on-air networks [such as Home & Garden TV and the Food Network] gain viewers... but we also have to bring in revenue."

Scott Mills, chief operating officer of BET Interactive, agrees, stating that his company puts significant emphasis on carving out a strong niche on the Internet-if only to help sell commercials on air. "Either we make an effort to own the space or someone else will," he says, "it's that simple."

"We're working hard to bring viewership to our on-air programs through the Website," says Clint Stinchcomb, vice president of New Media at Discovery Networks. His parent company recently made the Website a separate business and Stinchbomb says that it's helped his division focus on content that draws the most online visitors. In an effort to help consumers get a better online experience, the Discovery Website also instructs visitors on how to obtain a high-speed connection.

Yet interactivity and high-speed access are not the only features that attract online visitors. Weather.com's Debora Wilson, who heads up the Website owned and operated by The Weather Channel, explained how her division is now looking at delivering weather content to wireless platforms, such as pagers and other portable data devices.

The key to building a successful Website, says Wilson, is to be aware of what visitors want in online content and how they want to use it.

"There's little point in designing a creative Website that no one wants to use," she says.

Discovery's Stinchcomb echoed this sentiment and states that this should extend to knowing what cable operators, who are carrying the channel, want as well. "We're always asking the operators what they want," he says. "What we see is that they are very focused on digital service and high speed Internet access and not so much on interactive programs." - Michael Grotticelli
These and other observations were revealed during a panel discussion on Sunday, moderated by Cablevision's David Wicks, entitled "Your Net Worth: Answering the Hard Questions about the Role and Value of Internet Properties."
Other areas where these Websites have been successful are in cross promotion of the two entities via print material and on air. BET's Mills says they've found that when an on-air host mentions a website, it drives significantly more traffic to the Web than any 30-second commercial ever did.

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