Digital Requires Particular Skills

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

With television networks rushing into digital programming, suddenly new items are being added to the to-do lists on busy executives’ Palm Pilots.

“Who was thinking about selling TV shows on iTunes in October? Nobody. Who was thinking about it in November? Everybody,” said Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo, which has been tapping into broadband, video-on-demand and cellphones to keep viewers attached to its shows.

While Ms. Zalaznick said thinking about digital is something everyone at her network, from programming to marketing to public relations, was responsible for to some degree, there are some people in the industry whose jobs have really changed and people with specialties that hadn’t been very important before.

Take Paul DeBenedittis, who has been in programming and scheduling jobs at MTV since he joined the network in 1997. Now, as executive VP of multiplatform programming, content strategy and scheduling at MTV, the complexity of his job has become more like playing the three-dimensional chess Mr. Spock enjoyed on “Star Trek” than the checkers played at traditional television networks.

“A lot of people have asked me internally, ‘What is your windowing strategy? Give me that chart,'” Mr. DeBenedittis said. “And it doesn’t exist as a generic chart because it really is all about what is the show, what are its characteristics, and from there you decide whether or not it’s going to be a mobile play or it’s going to be an Overdrive play, linear, pushing all of the screens, an iTunes play as well as other digital platforms or portals.”

A sketch comedy like MTV2’s “Wonder Showzen” is easily cut up into bite-size pieces that would work on wireless or Overdrive, MTV’s broadband service, he said, while shows that tell more of a story should be on platforms where they can have a little more time to develop.

Revenue a Factor

Mr. DeBenedittis said that executives from different distribution platforms at MTV make suggestions about which content they’d like, but that someone needs to direct traffic.

“It’s never been a tug of war,” he said, “but with no traffic cop, we know what that results in.”

Revenue, of course, also factors into the equation.

“In general we factor in where we can make money with the piece of content, where we can get the right marketing and promotion for that piece of content,” Mr. DeBenedittis said. “We also have our sponsors that we have to make sure we’re supporting.”

MTV sells a “360 package” that attaches advertisers to shows as they move from platform to platform to engage audiences that want more of a particular program.

Scheduling across platforms gets complicated.

Take the second-season launch of “My Super Sweet 16” last week. It was preceded by reruns of last season’s episodes on the cable network MTV and at MTV.com. On MTV.com viewers are notified they will be able to vote on favorite episodes and scenes from the new season. On Overdrive, which is accessible from MTV.com, there will be additional footage that answers some questions viewers might have had, such as “What happened after the party?” and “What did that girl say to her father?.” There will be segments on MTV wireless and full shows on VOD as well.

“Each of the platforms will have some unique content as we’re prepared to launch the return of the series,” Mr. DeBenedittis said.

When new episodes of “16” premiered on MTV, they were followed by what Mr. DeBenedittis called “Part 2” on Overdrive.

“You know how when a show ends and the credits roll? If you’re a real fan, you’re kind of disappointed it’s over,” he said. “We’re providing additional content you haven’t seen. … It gives you that other material you couldn’t possibly do in linear, because we can’t do it all in a half-hour.”

When MTV’s “Laguna Beach” spinoff “The Hills” launches next month, the first segment of the first episode will be previewed on Overdrive, which also will feature a trailer for the show, cast profiles, promos and another after-show.

“There’s a ton of content that we’re providing to the different platforms, and where appropriate we’ll put pieces of the actual episodes on something like VOD. VOD has been a traditional lean-back experience, so that’s a platform where we’ve gone to full episodes,” he said.

How much content? Mr. DeBenedittis estimated that for “Real World,” there were 142 unique pieces of content altogether that needed to be scheduled and platformed.

With nonlinear platforms, Mr. DeBenedittis’ job is “really putting the content in control of our viewers, so it’s not so much scheduling as saying here are our offerings,” he said. He finds the challenge revitalizing: “It’s completely new for everyone; it’s completely new for the industry.”

Counting Eyeballs

And of course, once programming appears on digital platforms, it’s important for networks to tabulate how many people watched. At Scripps Networks, that’s where Cheryl Brink comes in.

Scripps hired Ms. Brink, previously with CNET, in January as VP of interactive research and analytics.

“I’m learning the TV language, and they’re learning the online language, and I think we’re going to get there very quickly,” she said.

In some ways, tracking how many people look at a piece of content on the Internet is more precise than it is on television. When a user requests a Web page or a picture or an ad, it registers in a server, providing the network and its advertisers with a very accurate number.

Unfortunately, that number is tied to a computer browser rather than to a specific user, so numbers about how many people are using a piece of content or their gender and age are harder to come by.

“We have a very good count of pages,” she said. “When you get to the aspect of users, that’s more challenging.”

Syndicated systems for measuring digital programming are past their infancy, but still not mature, with syndicated services like Nielsen’s Net//Ratings and comScore Media Metrix not yet accredited by the Media Rating Council. But on the Web, Ms. Brink said, there was more attention to measuring interaction with the advertisers’ content than on TV, where measurement focused on program viewing.

Like TV measurements, those systems are only as good as their samples.

“The challenge there is that they have relatively small base sizes and so when it comes to measuring ad campaigns, as opposed to measuring the use of a site, the data can start to break down,” she said.

For video, Scripps now gets its usage reports from a third-party server It wants to get a better handle on that usage data.

“We think we’ll have more power in our metrics when we can get it inside with all our other site usage metrics and be able to develop a holistic view,” she said. “Once we have it inside in our own metrics, we can look not just at the video views but [at] what else that user has viewed on our site and be able to build a profile, maybe a behavioral profile of that user that could be very valuable to that advertiser.”

Scripps would also like to take a more coordinated look at how TV and the Internet interact.

“It is an exciting time to be in this industry, in convergence, in the advertising industry,” Ms. Brink said.

She said she was talking with her boss, Michael Pardee, senior VP of research for Scripps, about how in couple of years people will be just be plugging their TVs into their PCs.

“Depending on which way you get the program, the ads could be different and the experience could be different and measuring all that and aggregating those audiences and understanding it is going to be a challenge but also a lot of fun and could represent just tremendous expansion of audiences relative to what we have today.”

Indeed, digital programming will mean a lot more work for a lot of people in the television business.

“Yes, everyone’s working a little bit harder,” Ms. Zalaznick said, “but the point is that if you’re not working a little bit
harder in this area, you’re not going to be working at all next year.”