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Stern Serious About VOD TV

Jul 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Howard Stern, the controversial self-proclaimed King of All Media, is in talks to move the television version of his popular radio show to Comcast Cable and other multiple system operators, to be aired on a subscription video-on-demand basis, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Such a move would be a watershed moment in the history of VOD. Mr. Stern could attract around 1 million VOD subscribers across the country, sources estimated.

“Having Howard Stern on subscription VOD is a killer application for the platform,” said Cathy Rasenberger, a cable distribution consultant. “It would draw a lot of viewership. It would be as big a coup for Comcast as it was for Sirius.”

In January Mr. Stern will move his free, over-the-air weekday radio show to the subscription Sirius satellite radio service.

Oddsmakers previously counted on Mr. Stern moving his TV show-which ended its long run on Comcast-owned E! Entertainment TV last month -to Viacom’s male-targeted Spike TV, which has made a bid for the program. But Mr. Stern has “left that table, at least for now” and is instead negotiating with Comcast and other MSOs, sources said last week.

Until now, VOD has been used mainly for movies, back episodes of popular series and promotional material and as a last-ditch home for the occasional start-up network that can’t otherwise get wide cable carriage.

For Mr. Stern, VOD not only would represent an analogous distribution model to his Sirius show but also would be a potential solution for two problems that have plagued his basic-cable program: content and advertising.

Even as a spinoff of his regular public-airwaves radio program, E!’s “The Howard Stern Show” was awash with censoring pixels and bleeped words. As a premium offering, his new Sirius show promises to be even raunchier. Because subscription VOD is a premium service that requires some kind of additional payment (individual or subscription), Mr. Stern would presumably have free rein. Even in conservative communities, VOD has emerged as a way for cable operators to offer soft-core porn and other controversial material.

Mr. Stern already offers uncensored broadband video versions of his E! series for $4.95 per episode on his Web site, howardstern.com.

The other problem Mr. Stern faced at E! was a lack of big-name advertisers, despite having the top-rated show on the network. For an entertainer who has legions of hardcore fans but few advertisers willing to be associated with his program, a subscription VOD model could make financial sense. It could potentially be very lucrative for Mr. Stern and his associates.

“He’s cutting out the middle man,” said one source close to the negotiations. “It makes the most sense for him financially. He knows his audience supports him and the VOD scenario will maximize that.”

Ms. Rasenberger said there is no boilerplate VOD financial arrangement. But suffice to say Comcast would have to pay Mr. Stern a significant sum to carry the show. That could include a shared-revenue arrangement.

“It’s very new territory; they don’t have a standard model,” Ms. Rasenberger said. “Comcast is acquiring content and making it up as they go along.”

Comcast is the nation’s largest VOD provider, with on-demand service available to about 8 million subscribers. Mr. Stern probably would be allowed to shop the show to operators in non-Comcast markets, essentially breaking ground as a new kind of one-man network.

Representatives of Spike TV and Mr. Stern had no comment. A Comcast spokesperson said, “We are not going to comment on programming rumors and speculation.”