It’s Not Cable TV. It’s Whatever

Upfronts present a multitude of multiplatform scenarios
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By this summer, Internet-savvy teens will be able to visit The Click, a new broadband site that will let them mix slick fare from various shows on MTV Networks’ (MTVN) nighttime teen channel, The N, and create “video mashups.”

In just 48 million cable homes, The N isn’t even a fully distributed cable network, but splashing content on digital platforms is such an MTVN priority that the company is launching The Click alongside MTV’s broadband site Overdrive, VH1’s VSpot, Comedy Central’s MotherLoad and Nickelo­deon’s Turbo Nick.

It’s multiplatform mania in cable, and MTVN’s new modes of content delivery were the focus of the company’s upfront presentation to ad buyers last week. The two-hour, celebrity-studded event, dubbed “Feed the Need,” was a showcase for watching content in all the new places. Network executives touted more than 100 Web sites, broadband channels and mobile-content offerings and called its consumers “the most loyal and digitally wired audience in the world.”

The hype about the company’s breadth of online and mobile applications and digital advertising opportunities seemingly got equal if not more attention than the programs from which they are derived. But in fact, cable upfront pitches this spring have been dominated by showing off a mix of media: spots on the Internet, mobile and other platforms in addition to plain old cable TV.

MIXING IT UP

Disney, Court TV and Lifetime extolled their new platforms for content and advertising. So did BET, which launched its new broadband site partly because its target African-American 18- to 34-year-old audience likes to watch TV and surf the Internet simultaneously.

“We are connecting with our audience in new ways every day,” said BET Chairman/CEO Debra Lee, pointing to upfront marketing materials that bore the slogan “Whatever, Whenever, Wherever.”

“If you don’t remember anything else from tonight,” she said, “I hope you remember that phrase.”

No doubt, they will. At last year’s upfronts, broadcast networks generated just 1% growth to $9 billion, while cable networks grew 3% to $6.8 billion. In 2005, broadcasting and cable networks took in about $29 billion, versus $27 billion the year before.

Online spending, however, grew 30% last year to $12.5 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. That trend line is still straight up. “If this year is a repeat of last year’s market,” says Magna Global Worldwide Chairman/CEO Bill Cella, “networks need to be selling something new to bring more money in the door.”

Disney Channel’s “Mix It Up” presentation showed off a potpourri of platforms, including iTunes downloads and deals with mobile and video-on-demand (VOD) providers. With plans to videostream, Disney will offer non–ad-supported content on ad-supported digital space.

Nickelodeon, whose content is available through VOD, wireless, broadband and iTunes, announced plans for podcasts and a “multimillion-dollar development slate for nonlinear productions,” which includes TV series from the Web and videogames.

Court TV riffed on its “Seriously Entertaining” slogan, promising to be “seriously everywhere” by adding a new broadband Web site called Seriously RED (a reference to the network’s 8 p.m. programming block, whose tagline is “Real, Exciting, Dramatic.”) The Web site is in addition to Court’s current satellite radio, mobile and VOD presence, as well as a series of short-form documentaries being developed for online.

“The viewer/consumer has never had more choice,” said Court TV Chairman/CEO Henry Schleiff shortly before his announced departure from the channel he had turned into a powerhouse. “More choice of content and more choice of the means of distribution to access that content.”

Not to be outdone, Lifetime President/CEO Betty Cohen said her network will be “the top multiplatform media brand for women and the premier destination for advertisers who want to engage 52% of the population.” Lifetime just launched a broadband site for Lifetime Movie Network and plans to add mobile deals but has yet to offer VOD content.

Spike TV promoted its multiplatform offerings, which it called Spike 2, with a testosterone-infused clip reel that mixed shots of digital devices with snippets of its action-based programming.

In keeping with Disney-ABC’s aggressive stance on putting its content on multiple platforms, ABC Family announced that it will relaunch its Web site in August to include interactive content and social-networking capabilities. ABCFamily.com will separate its content into five areas: Share, Play, Go, Celebrate and Watch, which will let viewers stream limited ad-supported original content and possibly feature series created specifically for the site.

Discovery Networks played up its new broadband sites—Discovery Channel Beyond and Travel Channel Beyond—as well as announcing a partnership to put video on Google Earth and plans for a 24-hour broadcast mobile network.

MTV focused almost entirely on digital venues in its presentation, noting that it offered 142 “touch points” from this season’s Real World, including ringtones and extra programming on the Overdrive broadband site.

MTV President Christina Norman called multi­platform positioning the engine that drives her network’s strategy. Indeed, MTV’s young audience is the one most likely to use alternative sources like Overdrive, which clocked 13 million streams in 30 days for the online version of the Video Music Awards.

“For us, multiplatform is more than the buzzword of the day,” Norman says. “It is the way this audience lives.”

That’s remarkably similar—almost word for word, in fact—to what Dave Howe, executive VP/general manager of NBC Universal-owned Sci Fi Channel, said. His network chose the upfront season to announce that it is creating a broadband component for every show it has in development. The promise came as Sci Fi executives unveiled details of their forthcoming broadband site, Sci Fi Pulse, which launches May 8 with episodes of its series and movies.

“All this talk about new media, to the Sci Fi gang, isn’t really a new story,” said USA/Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer at a press lunch. “Nowhere is our brand strength more evident than in the digital arena.”

But several network executives acknowledge privately that they do not know how much ad money will actually go to multiplatform content or whether their networks are touting their digital space simply because it’s in vogue.

Indeed, some networks—notably, TNT, TBS and A&E—more closely followed the “content is king” mantra and focused presentations on promoting series in production and development, mentioning only tangentially the multiplatform endeavors to come—an impending iTunes deal for A&E, for example.

Scripps’ Food Network is also slowly making its way into the multiplatform world. With VOD content on Time Warner and Comcast systems, a mobile deal with Sprint, and deals to distribute syndicated broadband content to MSN and Yahoo!, Food will launch in HD in June with about 3 million homes on EchoStar. It plans a broadband spinoff site for later this year.

Food, however, isn’t rushing onto emerging platforms. Its average viewer is a 48-year-old suburban housewife who “doesn’t have a video iPod or a Web-enhanced cellphone” quite yet, says Senior VP of Marketing and Creative Services Michael Smith.

“LEGITIMATE POSTURING”

Starcom New York Senior VP Doug Seay doesn’t blame the networks for trying to assuage advertisers’ concerns.

“It’s legitimate posturing, but it’s a bit like pushing the options on a car,” Seay says. “They’ll say whatever it is that will help them sell the car.”

But he is skeptical about much of the networks’ digital bluster. “Everyone sees the classic model isn’t working, and everyone wants a new model to replace it,” Seay says. “It’s not that simple.”

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