Screaming to Be Heard

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When Comcast, Sony and Lionsgate launch their new horror film network on Halloween, they’ll use so-called “FEARnet ambassadors” to infiltrate the online horror community and post messages in chat rooms, forums and instant message programs.

That’s just one of the many marketing tactics the new-style network will employ, but it’s one that underscores networks’ need to be heard in a cluttered entertainment world.

That’s because FEARnet isn’t a linear channel. It’s a video-on-demand and broadband network featuring horror films. Indeed, the days of the big linear network launches are nearly over; they’ve been replaced with programming initiatives that debut online, on VOD and on mobile phones-but not on-air. Channel capacity is strained on most cable systems, and new linear launches are confined largely to hi-def channels these days.

Over the past few years, niche programmers such as Ripe Digital Entertainment and HealthiNation have launched VOD and broadband networks, and big media companies such as Comcast, Sony, Lionsgate and Discovery are also rolling out their new programming concepts across multiple viewing venues.

One of the keys to success lies in targeted marketing. “You will see these micro-channels launching via broadband or VOD because they are pursuing an enthusiast marketplace,” said Tom Grams, managing director of TVGrams Digital Media, a new media consultancy. “Because they are pursuing an enthusiast marketplace, they have to superserve the horror niche. They need to look in and create partnerships with the books and publications and any touchpoints where these people frequent. That’s where they need to be.”

The FEARnet marketing mix includes traditional messaging as well as marketing that’s targeted more to the horror film fan base. The channel is launching initially on Comcast and is targeting its first marketing campaign to Comcast homes via on-air spots on MTV, VH1, BET, Comedy Central, Discovery, Spike TV and other networks in Comcast’s footprint, as well as through spots in thematically related shows such as “Spike TV’s Scream Awards,” AMC’s “Monsterfest” and E!’s horror-themed programming, said Diane Robina, president of Comcast’s emerging networks.

Future Model

There will also be tune-in messages on Comcast’s VOD service as well as a FEARnet MySpace page, with a viral e-mail campaign to follow. FEARnet also plans to introduce a user-generated contest to develop a horror mini-film. The finalists’ entries will be featured on the network.

Ms. Robina believes the FEARnet model-with a twin broadband and VOD approach-is the wave of the future. “This is how networks will launch in the future,” she said. “This is the next cable.”

FEARnet will hit the street with more than 70 hours of free programming on VOD, including short- and long-form films. The broadband service will include nine free feature-length films and 200 shorts, as well as more than 50 downloadable movies to buy or rent. The network will be ad-supported, but the sales staff won’t start selling until early 2007. At launch FEARnet will include news, reviews and real-time polling for mobile phones.

FEARnet is not the first network to launch in this fashion, but it’s one of the biggest and is likely to set the standard for big media companies, Mr. Grams said. “If you are doing VOD there is no reason not to do broadband,” he said. “Why create something for just one platform?”

Discovery Networks is also launching a new programming initiative in this vein. The media company is currently rolling out its Turbo network in waves across VOD, online, mobile and in an on-air programming block on Discovery HD Theater. It’s the first time Discovery has launched a new brand without a linear network.

Other networks have rolled out in this fashion in the past few years. Ripe Digital Entertainment introduced its first VOD network, RipeTV, a year ago and quickly added a broadband and mobile component. The content is geared toward young men.

“FEARnet is a phenomenal idea and will be very successful because it plays into exactly what a VOD network should do, which is exploit a niche that hasn’t been exploited yet,” said Ryan Magnussen, CEO of Ripe Digital Entertainment. To succeed, these new-style networks need content, distribution and smart marketing. Ripe has taken a viral marketing approach, tapping into its demo via keyword buys, search ads and RSS feeds, he said.

Hospital Partnership

Then there’s HealthiNation, which launched as a VOD network on Insight this summer and introduced a corresponding broadband network earlier this month. HealthiNation, which provides health information in a video format, has partnered with local hospitals in its VOD markets to drive awareness of the service.

New networks also need to understand what the viewer wants in each of the new media environments, said Raj Amin, who founded HealthiNation. For instance, the video used online needs brighter contrast because computer screens are darker, he said.

Timing is also critical.

Ms. Robina believes the timing is right for a horror network. “When the world becomes chaotic and scary, people turn to horror movies because they like to control their fears, and then it’s over,” she said.