New Order, New Champs

Mar 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When Pete Danielsen, Nickelodeon’s senior VP of programming, put his new show “Go, Diego, Go!” on the Web and video-on-demand before it premiered on television last fall, it felt unnatural to him.

It was the first time Mr. Danielsen and his Nickelodeon colleagues had gambled on trying to build enthusiasm for a show on alternative media before audiences could tune in to watch it on Nickelodeon.

“In some ways it felt a little uncomfortable because ‘Diego’ was the first show we offered elsewhere before it premiered,” Mr. Danielsen said.

The risk paid off. “Go, Diego, Go!,” a spinoff of “Dora the Explorer,” is now the Viacom-owned network’s top-rated show for preschoolers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In a matter of months, the decades-old way of watching television on the tube in the living room has vanished. The game has changed, and audiences will demand more and more of their TV programs on iTunes, video-on-demand, the Web or other services yet to be imagined.

“What we are seeing is when you use technology to open up the availability of media, you only increase consumption,” said Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for the Disney-ABC Television Group. “You grow the overall pie. Many people feared cannibalization, but you get more people consuming.”

“Diego’s” success can be attributed in part to the fact that as a highly anticipated kids offering, it is one type of show that thrives by being available over multiple media.

As executives start gathering data on the new media forays, they are discovering the early winners share some common ground.

Shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” which were both bona fide, network-defining hits before getting their new media plays on iTunes, have proven to benefit from on-demand distribution. Beyond that, the shows that gain TV viewers by offering episodes on-demand tend to appeal to viewers who are busy, affluent and want to be in on the latest cultural fads. On-the-go parents also are emerging as big consumers of on-demand shows and stand to boost their favorite programs’ ratings.

Information on the kinds of shows that benefit most from on-demand availability is a must-have for programmers as they face-and try to embrace-the new realities of the television business.

New distribution platforms are no longer just marketing plays; they are considered possible revenue streams now, said Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal-owned Bravo.

Programmers now are looking at new platforms not just as part of experimental launch strategies but as a programming philosophy, Mr. Danielsen said.

The successful experimentation with shows like “Go, Diego, Go!” gave Nickelodeon executives confidence to announce at the network’s upfront presentation earlier this month their new multimillion-dollar development slate of content designed to debut on-demand.

“Obviously the stars are aligning for the digital revolution,” said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television and MTV Networks kids and family group. “It’s all available. It’s all user-friendly.”

Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television Group, has gone as far as to say that everything from NBC Universal ultimately will be available in digital form.

“Someday, why wouldn’t our whole library be available everywhere?” Mr. Zucker asked. “You can’t make an absolute conclusion that there is a direct correlation, but intuitively we all know [exposure on alternative platforms is] not hurting.”

Executives at Walt Disney-owned ABC also plan to offer more shows in new venues, however, “We’re not going to put everything out there,” Mr. Cheng said.

While G4’s overall prime-time audience is small, the Comcast-owned technology-themed cable network is pursuing multiple ways of delivering its shows, G4 President Neal Tiles said.

“It’s no secret that we don’t have the programming budgets right now of some of our competitors, whether Comedy Central or Spike or MTV2,” he said. “What is promising for us is where the business is going. We are building up a little bit of beachhead [in nonlinear].”

Networks are striking new media deals at a relentless pace; rarely a day goes by without the announcement of another program being offered up to denizens of the coolest new programming venue-iTunes. There’s also VOD, broadband and Google Video.

For now, though, the cachet and reach of iTunes makes it the big dog among the new platforms.

As the new distribution services blossom, programmers are learning what does and doesn’t work in the new paradigm.

The biggest new media platform success stories-programs like Nickelodeon’s “Diego” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” NBC’s “The Office,” ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” and Bravo’s “Project Runway”-are the big shows.

But as it turns out, pre-made hits are not the only shows receiving overall viewership spikes by going on-demand. Shows with special appeal to viewers suffering from what Kaan Yigit, analyst with Solutions Research Group, calls “acute time poverty” also are proving to play well by being distributed on multiple platforms.

The typical iTunes user, for instance, is busy, affluent (average household income is $62,500), 30 years old and always on the lookout for the next “it” thing, Mr. Yigit said. They often are so busy that they have to fit TV into their lives with devices like the video iPod.

Shows that have the potential to click with this set have a greater chance of benefiting from being on iTunes. The prototype for this sort of property is quirky series “The Office,” which experienced prime-time ratings spikes concurrent with the show taking off with iPod users.

“If you make it easier, they will keep up,” Mr. Yigit said. “If you cross acute time poverty with affluence in a 25 to 34 demo, you get cross-platform success.”

Likewise, on-the-go parents are likely on-demand consumers as they pursue the next big kids property while balancing their child-rearing schedules. Along these lines, as a “Dora” spinoff, “Diego” had the built-in anticipation of carrying on the story line of an existing and adored character on a popular show.

“Unlike other shows, there is some sort of urgency both from a personal gratification and desire to be in the loop,” said Keith Richman, CEO of Break.com, a broadband online service for trendy videos.

However, simply unwrapping a program for multiple distribution is not a guarantee that TV ratings will rise.

Factors such as on-air competition still carry vastly more weight. For instance, Sci-Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” is regularly a Top 2 or 3 TV show download on iTunes, but its television ratings for January through March are down 23 percent among adults 18 to 49 compared to last year. The network attributes the dip to competition on Friday nights.

Similarly, CBS made its hit shows “Survivor,” “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Amazing Race” available on Google Video and Comcast VOD in mid-January, but the 18 to 49 ratings for all those shows, with the exception of “NCIS,” are down in January and February. CBS emphasized that the ratings are down because the shows were in repeats in February during the Olympics and not because of cannibalization from new platforms.

And not everything tossed onto iTunes becomes a hit.

With its original slate of iTunes content, NBC’s vintage shows “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Dragnet,” “Adam-12” and “Knight Rider” did not make their way into the iTunes top downloaded shows list.

These stumbles indicate that content targeting younger audiences works better on various on-demand delivery platforms.

Also, NBC Universal’s “Law & Order,” whose syndicated runs have driven up the show’s prime-time ratings, has not rated high on iTunes. That show also tends to appeal to a slightly older demo.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the early winners may not be the long-term victors, Mr. Yigit said.