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A Full Ballot of Debates

Oct 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Cablevision’s regional news channel News 12, serving Long Island, N.Y., introduced a service this election season to its video-on-demand offering that brings new forms of targeted programming to viewers.

Earlier this month, the regional news channel began making available on VOD debates it is producing between local candidates. While cable operators have produced and carried local programming on VOD for a few years now, the News 12 initiative is groundbreaking because viewers will be able to search by ZIP code for the debates that interest them. That marks one of the first times viewers can search in any capacity on VOD. Search is regarded as a necessary capability for the long-term success of VOD.

The News 12 offering is also one of the first programming initiatives to harness the potential of the video-on-demand architecture to deliver a more targeted experience, a capability VOD proponents have lauded but that hasn’t been deployed in a meaningful fashion.

“Bringing a user-friendly search and navigation function to robust on-demand video databases is what Google hopes to accomplish through its YouTube acquisition,” said Paul Rule, president of Marquest Research, a VOD research firm. “Cablevision’s effort for their News 12 Long Island political debates seems an innovative step in this direction for a cable-based VOD system.”

VOD Search Model

News 12 downplayed the potential of its new capabilities, characterizing its offering as simply a better way to cover the local elections. “We saw the need to get these debates to our viewers in a very user-friendly way, and the technology and infrastructure became available and we jumped on it,” said Patrick Dolan, president of News 12 Networks and news director for News 12 Long Island.

If the offering is a success, it will become a regular staple of election coverage and will be rolled out to Cablevision’s other regional news networks in Westchester County, N.Y., the Bronx, Brooklyn and other locales. It could also be a model for other operators as they introduce search capabilities into VOD. The operator is using a home-grown technology solution to enable the targeting, said David Kirschner, general manager of News 12 Interactive.

News 12 has typically offered local debates each election cycle, Mr. Dolan said. “We do these debates and until this year we simply put them on the air in the evening and weekend and published the schedule. They were listed on the program guide and it was like, `Here they are. Go ahead,”‘ he said.

Cablevision’s news channels have offered news, traffic and weather information on VOD that’s targeted by region, but not by ZIP code. This year, the technology was ready that would enable Cablevision to offer the commercial-free debates on a geo-targeted basis on VOD. Viewers go to the VOD homepage that lists the debates and then enter their ZIP codes using the remote control to view the ones most pertinent to them.

“It displays all of the debates that are relevant to you. It’s a pretty significant step forward,” Mr. Kirschner said.

News Channel 12 is producing 40 debates as part of its “Island Vote 2006” and will add new ones as they take place. All will be available on VOD.

Cable operators including Time Warner, Cox and Comcast have offered local programming on VOD for several years now as a competitive hedge against satellite. High school sports has been the most popular fare, but operators have also included high school battle of the band contests, parades, festivals and local entertainment shows.

“All the operators we’re deployed with see local VOD as a strategic business because it drives consumers to use the service more and it fulfills the need for the long tail of niche content,” said Phil Simpson, director of VOD systems for SeaChange. “It also sets up opportunities for targeted advertising and other new revenue streams. Ultimately, local VOD will improve subscriber stickiness by enabling more consumers to contribute their own content, and develop communities around that content.”

In addition to the local component, the News 12 initiative addresses the importance of search as a key feature for the future of VOD.

Search Is Crucial

Search will become critical because cable operators continue to add more programming. As they do, viewers will want an easier way to navigate the content than sifting through several layers of menus and buttons.

“The News 12 Long Island offering is playing to cable’s strength as a geographic community-based medium, while taking some baby steps toward offering an extensive database in a fashion that helps viewers pick their way through it and find the content that’s important to them,” Mr. Rule said. “It brings a search function to VOD navigation-a simple start to narrowing choices to those of real interest to the potential viewer.”

Other news channels have used VOD for local election content. Time Warner’s regional news channel NY1, serving New York, has placed statewide debates and town hall meetings on its NY1 VOD channel the day after they are televised and also on VOD for its regional channels in Syracuse, Albany and Rochester, N.Y. For instance, at press time NY1 planned to feature on VOD the general election debate slated for Oct. 20 between Hillary Clinton and John Spencer in the New York senatorial race.

NY1 is also considering including paid political spots in its VOD menu, said Steve Paulus, senior VP and general manager of NY1. “We have been approached about that and the question is how do you differentiate between paid political announcements and editorial content?” he asked. He expects to leverage the Navic technology NY1 uses for interactive polls to let users jump from a news story on-air to a political ad on VOD with a click of the remote.

“You will probably see a real revolution in the presidential races in a couple years,” he said. “You will see the whole nature of advertising change so you could go to VOD and see the political ads.”