Stream Weavers

Studios and networks are using new delivery systems to broaden their brands
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Traditional media companies are being barraged with an endless supply of new distribution methods, as content is streamed, downloaded, distributed via peer-to-peer networks and sent out to portable devices via wireless cellular and other networks.

Companies ranging from MTV Networks to NBC Universal to ESPN are using these new methods to further their brands' reach. “It's a whole new world,” says John Kosner, ESPN New Media senior VP/general manager.

Kosner's in charge of ESPN.com, ESPN Motion and ESPN360, three products that extend ESPN content far beyond TV. ESPN.com pulls in fans with a mix of stats, insight and humor, while Motion technology brings video to the site. ESPN360, meanwhile, is a broadband-only product for which cable operators pay ESPN to deliver to their broadband subscribers. It gives the company a subscription model to go alongside ad revenues.

“There is a ton of money flowing online for advertising, and our goal is to have an enduring business model,” Kosner says. “I think of it as basic cable for the Internet.”

GOING DEEPER THAN A LINEAR RERUN

Figuring out what an audience wants is something media execs like Kosner and Jason Hirschhorn, MTV Networks' chief digital officer, struggle with every day. Keeping on top of always evolving devices and new technologies requires experimentation and coordination. “We're trying to figure out how we can go deeper than just a linear rerun of what was on-air,” says Hirschhorn.

When it comes to aggressive broadband initiatives, no company outdoes MTV Networks, which relaunched broadband-specific Web sites this year for MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, with a heavy emphasis on streaming video, games and original content.

“Our idea with the broadband sites was to build a broadband network infrastructure and then roll out the networks individually,” says Hirschhorn. “With MTV Overdrive, we took the lead in interface design and functionality.”

Both MTV Networks and ESPN are committed to making sure the sites offer more than just clips from programs on their networks.

ESPN, for example, has begun animating conversations from ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning, adding visual humor to match the snappy verbal interactions.

MTV Networks is taking the Laguna Beach franchise and adding style tips from the cast, mini-Cribs episodes, and previews for next year. “The users don't want to feel cheated,” says Hirschhorn, “and the advertisers get better retention.”

While streaming content helps get around concerns of video theft, it subjects viewers to more frozen frames and broadband hiccups because it is susceptible to bandwidth constraints. That's one of the reasons Disney, once again, is using downloads to get content in front of PC and iPod users. The studio is slated to announce on Nov. 28 that it will work with technology provider Mavens Networks to deliver full-screen, DVD-quality video to PCs and video iPods. The Narnia Full-Screen Experience, a broadband channel, will have trailers, clips and behind-the-scenes segments from new feature The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Though using Apple's iTunes to get content onto the iPod, the system can also download content to a PC without iTunes.

Using new tech for a movie aimed primarily at children makes sense. “Millenials”—people ages 8-28—have grown up with a mouse in one hand and a videogame controller in the other. Brent Magid, of research firm Magid and Associates, has been hard at work on the company's Millenial Strategy Program, an initiative designed to help media companies understand the minds and needs of a group that, in five years, will make up 50% of the 18- to 49-year-old demographic.

“They're much more savvy and interested in feverishly testing new technologies,” says Magid. “While they're having all these devices thrown at them, it is important to note that, while certain things will stick, others will be just fads.”

Blogs, he says, get a lot of attention these days, but he's not sold on them as advertising vehicles: “There's only a sliver of the market really interested in that.”

Downloadable video, however, is a different story. “We're now seeing the consumer able to watch something where they want to watch it,” Magid says. “The DVR had a wave of consumers who learned they could choose when they wanted to watch a program, but now they want to choose where they want to watch it.” He adds that, while Apple users have downloaded 1 million pieces of video content via iTunes, more than 750,000 of those were viewed on a PC or laptop, not an iPod.

“It's all about content being liberated from a platform,” says Magid, “[but] it doesn't mean that everything is going to move to a computer or iPod.”

NBC'S PEER APPROVAL

Downloads via iTunes and even straight to the PC will continue to gain acceptance as a new revenue stream, but there is one drawback: It can take upwards of two hours to download a feature-length movie at DVD quality. That's one of the reasons a number of companies, including AOL.com, the BBC and NBC Universal, have embraced legal and secure peer-to-peer networks.

Peer-to-peer networking, made infamous by Napster, relies on the end user to actually help distribute content. Material is initially pushed out from the content owner to a user's PC, and that PC, for all intents and purposes, becomes another distributor.

“The real advantage for us is speed,” says David Zaslav, president of NBC Universal Cable, which oversaw NBC Universal's decision to use Wurld Media's peer-to-peer technology to distribute movies on-demand to PCs. “If someone orders a movie in a traditional download system, it would take a couple of hours. But Wurld Media speeds that up to one-sixth the time.”

Wurld Media's Peer Impact system pulls in the content from multiple places and reassembles the bits and pieces as one file on the computer.

Working with peer-to-peer is seen by some as dancing with the devil. But Zaslav views it as an important way to learn about the technology—and about consumers.

“Media companies need to chase down as many of these technologies as they can and play not only in the legal world but also on the dark side,” he says. “You need to know how people are pirating content and using the content, and sometimes technologies move from one side of the ledger to the other. The initial reaction to something like Wurld Media might be run for the hills, but you need to understand why some of them are okay.”

BEFORE THE IPOD

All the attention given to the new iPod made it appear that downloadable, portable video was an Apple invention. But the reality is that cellular services from companies like Verizon and Sprint have been offering cellphone video-on-demand (VOD) for nearly three years. Two more services scheduled to debut next year will take video-on-the-go to a whole new level.

Crown Castle and Qualcomm MediaFlo take different approaches to the same opportunity: delivering live TV signals to cellphones that have a Crown Castle or MediaFlo over-the-air receiver chip, without the user having to be on any cellular network.

The result? The ability to turn on the phone and instantly receive up to 30 channels without having to download video or find cellular service.

“With MediaFlo, consumers will be able to receive video signals at 30 frames per second, with fast channel changing and with great audio,” says Dr. Kamil Gragski, Qualcomm VP, engineering, and president of the Flo Forum, a group dedicated to driving the standardization of Flo-based transmission technologies across the globe.

Gragski predicts that technologies like forward-error correction, which automatically improves the quality of the video before the technological glitch reaches the viewer, will enrich the viewer experience.

So will there be one winning medium? The message all involved in the new-media initiatives make clear is that the current movement is not about setting up a battle between the TV and the PC or the PC and mobile devices/cellphones. It's about serving the needs of the audience and building brands.

“Right now, it's a gold rush,” says Hirschhorn. “It will take some time to find the gold, but the early adopters win.”

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