Programmers are finding that video-on-demand augments traditional network viewing.
HBO’s experiment with making new episodes of “The Wire” available on-demand before they premiere on the network Sunday nights has helped build viewership for the acclaimed series, with about a half-million digital households using the preview service.
The network is pleased with the results so far, but it’s not clear whether another series will get similar treatment. Certainly HBO will make all of its viewers wait until the Sunday telecast to see new episodes of “The Sopranos” when that show’s final season begins in March.
But video-on-demand is becoming a big part of the value of premium networks, both to subscribers and to cable operators.
According to VOD figures from Rentrak provided by HBO, orders for new episodes of “The Wire” in the six days before it hits the linear channel rose from one in the first week of the season to 442,000 in the fifth week. Rentrak covers cable systems in about 65 percent of the country.
“As more time lapses, more people have time to see this is available,” said Dave Baldwin, executive VP of programming planning for HBO. The strong response is further evidence that “people want to control their own viewing” and HBO’s experience is that the more opportunity subscribers have to see a program, the more they watch, Mr. Baldwin said.
Viewership of “Wire” episodes have grown on their premiere nights, and their weekly cume and on-demand viewing have increased as well. “On every one of those platforms, it’s gained audience,” Mr. Baldwin said of the series. On premiere showings on Sundays, “The Wire” is up about 20,000 households to 1.5 million per week. Cumulatively over the course of the week, episodes are seen by 4.1 million viewers, up from 3.9 million last season.
More snappy programming is coming to the on-demand platform. Showtime will make all eight episodes of season two of its Emmy-nominated miniseries “Sleeper Cell” available on-demand after the first episode debuts on the channel Dec. 10.
“It’s a stunt. It’s also an interesting way to help the operator draw continued attention to VOD. And hopefully the consumer enjoys having the flexibility to watch whenever they want,” said Tom Christie, executive VP of affiliate sales for Showtime.
Mr. Christie said Showtime’s audience now has three components: linear viewership, on-demand viewership and digital video recorder viewership. “Because they tend to be three mutually exclusive audiences, if you add them up, you start to get a sense of all the eyeballs that are checking it out,” he said.
Cinemax made all six installments of the “Star Wars” saga available in high definition on-demand on Nov. 1, 10 days before they started appearing on the linear network.
Still, networks think on-demand is a platform that requires study. “We think about it on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Baldwin said. “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk, and you’ve got to walk before you can run.”
Page Thompson, senior VP and general manager of video services for Comcast, confirmed that two episodes of “The Wire” are among the top 15 shows watched on-demand, based on the cable operator’s internal numbers.
“We’ve always said that on-demand is a great promotional platform for any network,” Mr. Thompson said.
He said Comcast has data that show that 40 percent of cable subscribers who use on-demand and discover a new show there go back and watch it on linear television. Comcast has also found several instances where shows do better in markets where they are promoted on-demand than in markets lacking on-demand.
CBS has joined Comcast’s top-10 VOD list since making a deal this season that makes some shows available on-demand for free in all of Comcast’s markets. Those shows are getting 10 times the usage they were getting when they cost $1.99 an episode, Mr. Thompson said.
Of course, on-demand is good for Comcast, too. “The heaviest users of on-demand do tend to be premium customers,” Mr. Thompson said. “Our premium subscribers that have on-demand are much happier. They churn less than premium subscribers that don’t have on-demand. That definitely helps us retain our subscribers.”
HBO had a unique opportunity to test the current limits of VOD with “The Wire,” which deals with the drug trade in urban Baltimore. The show is critically acclaimed and it has a loyal though small core audience. With all that goes on in fall television, it’s an enormous service for them, and I think they’re taking full advantage,” Mr. Thompson said.
But because of the relatively narrow appeal of “The Wire,” the risk of allowing the 11 million people with HBO On Demand to spoil plot lines for the other 18 million subscribers is minimal. With “The Sopranos,” for example, HBO goes to great lengths to ensure that word about plot twists and rub-outs doesn’t get out early.
Finding out your neighbor with cable and VOD has already seen a show won’t make HBO’s satellite subscribers happy. “It’s a good deal for the cable guys,” Mr. Baldwin said. “They’ve got it and the satellite guys don’t.”