VOD Moves Into Mouse House

Oct 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Disney could be creating a new model for major network groups with its plans to self-distribute the expanded video-on-demand fare it will offer on Verizon’s new VOD service next month.

Starting with Verizon’s first market in Texas and continuing with major cable operators-with which the content company intends to strike VOD deals in the coming months-Disney, via its Disney/ABC Television Group and ESPN Media Networks, will handle physical distribution in-house rather than rely on a third-party aggregator such as TVN or iN Demand.

Disney plans to increase its VOD offerings from what’s available today-primarily the Disney Channel on subscription VOD with Cablevision-to a full suite of 50 or more hours per month from several networks on multiple operators, said Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for Disney/ABC Television Group. The new distribution strategy makes sense given the sheer number of hours and the time-sensitive nature of some of the programming, like “World Series of Poker” or “ESPN X Games” from ESPN. “It’s driven mostly by our sports [and news] content,” he said. “We can deliver it faster. If we have game highlights and there is a quick turnaround with that [we can do it faster].”

Disney’s VOD content portfolio in its new expanded form includes ABC Family, ABC News Now, Disney Channel, ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ESPNU, Jetix, Radio Disney TV, SoapNet and Toon Disney.

Keeping the content transport in-house ensures Disney controls the delivery and can help the company save a few dollars. “It helps with quality control and getting it there quickly. If you are going to put something on VOD the next day, we can do that. [VOD aggregator] TVN can do that, but they will charge us a lot of money,” Mr. Cheng said.

However, he said, Disney will still work with TVN to service smaller operators, which usually depend on such relationships, whereas larger multiple system operators rely on their in-house operations to receive VOD content.

Verizon will continue to use TVN to receive VOD content from all its VOD suppliers. Disney will also use TVN in the next month or so as it transitions to the in-house model, which should be in place by the end of the year.

Disney likely won’t be the only one to go it alone. VOD supplier Tandberg TV said it has seen an uptick in networks evaluating that model.

“Other than niche content providers, I would think every major VOD customer would want a direct connection and not have someone as a middle man in between,” said Reggie Bradford, president of Tandberg TV, which counts among its customers networks, operators and the third-party aggregators. A natural evolution for a maturing industry such as VOD is for vested players to bring services in-house that were once outsourced, he said.

Another advantage of direct distribution is that it may allow a network more control over the increasingly important VOD advertising, said Mike Hopkins, senior VP of affiliates sales for Fox Cable Networks. While Fox just re-upped last week with TVN to encode and transport the 40 hours of on-demand content it offers today from Fox Sports en Espa%F1;ol, National Geographic Channel and Speed Channel, Mr. Hopkins said, Fox is also evaluating options from various VOD equipment vendors if down the road it decides to take those services in-house, a la the Disney model.

“As the business models develop and there is extra money coming from MSOs or advertising, it could be more cost-efficient to control the content all the way,” he said. Under that scenario a network could then be responsible for sending different commercials to different VOD markets, for example.

“We have national commercials we are putting into [VOD]. Instead of running one General Motors ad across the country, there might be an opportunity to target the ads. You might run an SUV spot in the Rocky Mountains and a convertible in L.A.,” he said.

What’s more, as Fox expands beyond 40 hours of VOD content to an inevitable 100 or 200 hours of content from more of its networks, that volume could make an in-house model more appealing, he said.

TVN works fine for now, he said. That’s partly because TVN is adapting its business model to add more value to networks. Under the new deal, Fox will use TVN’s new asset management tools to schedule and manage the delivery of its programs and also TVN’s so-called “rapid turnaround” service to distribute NASCAR content in a more timely fashion on Speed Channel.

TVN also recently inked deals with niche VOD providers, including Eurocinema and the Karaoke Channel, said Doug Sylvester, chief operating officer for TVN. He anticipates some networks may evaluate transport of content themselves, but he does not anticipate all will go that route, especially since it then puts MSOs in the position of playing traffic cop.

“If we can do a better job of keeping control in the hands of the networks while using our toolset, then we think we will have served them well and at the same time served our affiliates,” he said.

iN Demand Senior VP of Programming David Asch said transport is only a small portion of his company’s business. He pointed out that iN Demand still has licensing deals with studios including Paramount and 20th Century Fox to distribute their films on-demand and for pay-per-view and also licenses and transports content such as Howard Stern’s VOD show, which launches next month.