Cablers Boosting Local Content

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In Denver, participants in this summer’s Boulder Peak Triathlon were able to watch themselves cross the finish line after the race using video-on-demand. In Milwaukee, high school musicians can watch their battle of the bands competitions on VOD. And later this year in Mobile, Ala., parents of high school students can watch their kids’ school music performances in the same fashion.

While VOD has become best known for movies, HBO content and some popular free fare such as kids titles, cable systems are also loading unique locally produced content onto their VOD menus as a competitive hedge against both satellite providers and the coming foray of telecommunications firms into their industry.

Local content is an area cable operators believe is theirs to protect.

“Our secret sauce is being involved with the local community,” said Gary McCollum, VP and regional manager for Cox Northern Virginia. “The localism is part of the competitive advantage. When you look at DirecTV and Dish, it’s very hard for them to do that.”

But cablers won’t have the advantage forever. While local programming has always been a tough play for satellite, it won’t be for telcos, which can imitate the local content on their next-generation networks. That may be why cable systems are scurrying now to seize the opportunity.

Over the past two years, several cable systems began installing the equipment from VOD suppliers to deliver locally produced content on-demand. Now, many Comcast systems and about half of all Time Warner systems offer such fare. Time Warner expects all of its local markets in time to offer such content on-demand.

Just last week, Cablevision Systems said it is offering local election coverage from Long Island, N.Y.; Westchester, Conn.; and New Jersey on-demand.

In addition, many systems plan to increase the amount and type of local content in the next year. For instance, Cox in Northern Virginia intends to serve up high school sports and classes in English as a second language later this fall.

In 2004, Comcast in New Jersey provided interviews and specials with key gubernatorial candidates, and is continuing the programming this year.

Time Warner’s Milwaukee system expects to add its own locally produced children’s shows and a reading program for kids.

VOD supplier Tandberg TV has carved out a niche by deploying products that enable VOD production of local content to Charter, Cox, Adelphia, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Bright House and fothers. “We have seen dozens of new launches in the last six months of cable offering local on-demand content,” said Braxton Jarratt, VP of marketing for Tandberg. “It’s a natural for them to extend the local presence they have and the capabilities they have into VOD.”

Tandberg’s customers include Time Warner Cable’s Milwaukee system, the first Time Warner market to launch local VOD and a model for other Time Warner systems. Two years ago, the system introduced Wisconsin on Demand, a service solely dedicated to producing local market content for on-demand consumption. The channel delivers about 150 hours of content each week, up from 60 at launch, said Bev Greenberg, VP of public affairs for the Southeast Wisconsin division of Time Warner.

Scoring With Sports

High school sports is the most popular programming, she said. Additional content includes restaurant reviews, baseball tips for Little Leaguers in English and Spanish from Milwaukee Brewers players, behind-the-scenes tours of Miller Park, college sports and high school battle of the bands contests. Time Warner does not pay for the content, nor does it charge for it. The return on investment comes from retention.

“It gives us a very strong local competitive edge and advantage, but also reduces churn and helps to develop a loyal customer base,” Ms. Greenberg said. She added that local content ranks as one of the top three categories in the free on-demand section.

Comcast said several of its systems have launched local content on-demand in the past two years, relying on VOD server maker SeaChange to power the offering.

In addition to local triathlons, Comcast’s Denver system has carried high school sports, parades, festivals, collegiate baseball, golf tournaments and local entertainment series. The market launched VOD in June 2004 and generated 900,000 total orders that month, a number that rose to 4.7 million in July 2005, with two-thirds for free content. Local VOD is tracking similarly, said Robert James, general manager and director for Comcast’s local Denver channel.

Comcast in Denver already produces more than 100 events per year for its local origination channel, making it relatively easy to repurpose much of that for VOD. But next year, the system will move into exclusive VOD content for the first time, offering educational material from local schools and universities, ski conditions and tourism videos.

“We want to provide a service for our customers-things they don’t get elsewhere,” Mr. James said.

Comcast’s other markets have also teed up local fare. Its Utah system offers religious programming and pet adoptions, while viewers in Comcast’s Philadelphia/New Jersey/Delaware region can watch at least one high school game a week on-demand and often as many as three.

The Mobile, Ala., system is considering adding local dramatic performances in addition to the planned music programs. Comcast’s South Florida market has produced hurricane preparedness videos for VOD. In Nashville, the system crafts weekly updates on the Tennessee Titans, which are included in the NFL Network’s on-demand offering.

Programmers can also take advantage of the local platform to test-market content before taking it to a larger audience, SeaChange said.