Broadcasters are bolstering their online content in anticipation of next month’s annual marketing presentation to advertisers — the first upfront of the ad-supported streaming-video era.
NBC and News Corp. already announced the companies will jointly launch a video site, and ABC plans to enhance its video player.
In addition, all of the big five broadcast networks are readying new Web features in hopes of making their online products more attractive to fans and salable to advertisers.
NBC is shooting making-of documentaries for “Bionic Woman.” CBS is launching a “Ghost Whisperer” online spinoff. ABC will add a YouTube-style user-generated-video site for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The CW will add live chat and Fox will add several original series.
“Last year was a year of learning for everybody,” said Chris Carlisle, executive VP of marketing for Fox. “We’ve experimented with a lot of ad-supported models. This year everybody is going to take that learning to the marketplace.”
Ad sales for the growing amount of online network video are expected largely to remain tied to on-air sales and to be relatively small, experts said. The burgeoning streaming video ad market today accounts for less than 5 percent of linear ad revenue, according to Will Richmond, president of Broadband Directions.
With online income still slight, networks continue to use broadband primarily to help drive revenue to the linear channel, according to T.S. Kelly, senior VP, director of research and insight at Media Contacts.
“They’re protecting the mother ship,” Mr. Kelly said. “‘You gotta buy the broadcast to buy online’ is the common theme among most of our discussions. I would like to see those things separated moving forward.”
This time last year, not one of the broadcast network’s Web sites even had full-episode streaming media players (ABC and CBS were first, launching in May).
Since, each site has developed its own personality.
ABC has the most ad vanced video player, offering full-screen and high-resolution playback of its shows.
NBC has heavily invested in auxiliary content supporting on-air shows, and will soon break new ground with social networking tools.
CBS has the most original content, with several online-only series.
Fox is the most spread out, putting its video player on MySpace.
In its few short months, The CW has embraced fan interaction, with message boards a major part of the site.
Despite all the bells and whistles, streaming remains the core focus of the sites, Mr. Richmond said.
“Each one is doing their own things that differentiate, but the core is being a place for fans to watch the streaming episodes,” he said.
Going into the upfront, a problem for advertisers is how to measure and sell activity on the sites.
Networks say their internal measurements are often at odds with third-party measurement systems such as Nielsen//NetRatings. Counting episode streams instead of overall traffic is even trickier since each episode is typically broken into multiple streams, and some sites have streams that launch automatically (and are quickly shut off by the viewer).
Even if it’s clear how much traffic a site generates, most networks do not sell online ads without a commitment for ads on the linear channel.
“The measurement issue is frustrating,” Mr. Kelly said. “It goes hand-in-hand with proving these platforms work.”
To help distinguish its site to advertisers, ABC is gearing up to allow local ad insertion on its media player later this year.
Also, the network is offering advertisers the opportunity to sponsor a viewing experience. In other words, a viewer will see the same advertiser three times while watching an episode instead of multiple ads.
“The advertising experience is dramatically different when offering ownership of a consistent stream of a show,” said Alexis Rapo, VP of digital media for ABC.
Similarly, the network is introducing a “Pause Ad” feature this month, so that whenever viewers pause the stream they’ll see a static ad from the episode’s sponsor.
One added Web feature experts agreed could make a major impact in terms of traffic is social networking.
NBC plans to add tools to allow site visitors to customize their NBC.com experience, adding personal profiles, videos, blogs and viewing parties.
“Popular shows, like bands, have always had fan clubs,” said Todd Chanko, analyst with Jupiter research. “Today any popular media brand must have some social networking component.”
Daisy Whitney contributed to this report.