In 2006, the entertainment industry came closer to realizing the full potential of the TV/internet relationship than ever before. We are finally accepting that these two media can co-exist-- thanks to marketing advances like multiplatform content delivery, the use of video, user-generated promotional content and flexible viewing options. The resulting "content economy" of network and cable TV is, thus, being driven by value and market power. The currency: full episodes, clips of scheduled shows and features that are strategically used to drive traffic to websites-- which in turn generates ad revenue, promotes shows more effectively and drives increased viewership.
Let's take a look at the strides made this year, and what's likely to come.
TV content gets some new digs
Without exception, the major networks have finally started to create true content destinations, featuring full episodes, clips, show schedules, interactive games and even some blog driven content. Best of breed network executions even serve content to fans based on day of the week, and even day part, to encourage and remind them that a favorite show is on that night.
Yet, few network sites feature personalized content yet (with the possible exception of NBC), and there is little in the way of cross promotion based on expressed interest or fan profiles. For instance, if a fan is tracked watching a comedy, doesn't it make perfect sense to cross promote other comedies? Given the volume of traffic on content aggregators versus network websites, cross promotion may be a reason to distribute rather than host all their own content.
Networks weren't quite ready for this in 2006, but this year, that could change.
Hosted versus distributed video content
Traditionally, within the video window of a network website, fans are given a short synopsis of an episode, the series schedule for the week, access to show clips and links to shows' official websites. Not much of an offering, eh?
Yet, the networks are becoming cognizant of content's role in acquisition and retention of viewers. Thus, we're beginning to see online premiers of full episodes that can attract viewers weeks before the show appears on TV.
For example, "The Office" offered web-exclusive episodes during the show's hiatus to continue fan interest during the off season. And, to retain viewers, NBC offers fans a replay of the last week's episode and has highlights of past shows, so lapsed or new fans can catch up on the storyline. For further fan engagement, behind-the-scenes footage, promosodes, trailers and interviews are offered up to connect fans to the show's characters.
As a rule, while cable networks have robust websites that are similar to major networks -- with online schedules, interactive games, show profiles and the like -- they have not been as aggressive in hosting content in clip or full episode format.
When asked about using full episodes to generate trial and interest for their emerging network, one CEO demurred to err on the conservative side of hosted content for fear of retribution from cable affiliate distribution. Here, the market power of major networks allows them to freely distribute their full episode content online, while the cable networks have to tread more lightly.
Distributed content is a great example of the currency content holds in the online marketplace and should play a particularly strong role in the upcoming year. This value has been long known by offline publicity experts, who expertly dole out content 'exclusives' to tabloid shows, like "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood."
Content has this same power to keep and drive visitors to the online corollary-- eoline.com, rottentomatoes.com, yahoo.com entertainment and AOL entertainment each has a loyal following of visitors that love to see the latest scoop on their favorite shows and stars. Simple interview clips, highlight reels or upcoming teaser clips are being distributed online to dozens of content portals, fan sites and content category plays, generating thousands of impressions for each show.
Now video content aggregators, such as Youtube.com, have the power to build interest in a show with their massive audiences. A prime example of life being breathed back into a show is "Saturday Night Live," which experienced an online renaissance with the YouTube appearance of its Lazy Sunday sketch-- and then proved its viral viability wasn't a fluke with the more recent Justin Timberlake video. Through this technique, SNL now has a legion of young fans, not to mention older fans who are returning to the aging franchise.
TV has embraced the use of clips on YouTube, but they need to be breakout hits to make a dent in the enormous amount of user generated content. To differentiate themselves, networks and shows will need to invest in their UGC portal relationships in the form of exclusives, promotions and branding to create destinations for themselves within these online networks.
To achieve this goal, expect to see networks and shows begin to adopt branded channels that aggregate both network and user content around their show. For example, while the Paris Hilton YouTube page was touted as their first 'brand channel,' it was merely a list of content. Contrast that execution with the unique, branded creative treatment, theatrical release date / call to action and litany of movie trailers and clips for "Night at the Museum." In a similar vein, the YouTube and Coca Cola 'Wishcast' viral promotion featured familiar Coke holiday creative with the Coca Cola polar bear icon and Coca Cola logo, along with a combination of user generated content incentives.
Speaking of "You" Web…
In 2007, user generated content will play a stronger role in TV show promotions, both on network websites and distributed amongst the content aggregators. Co-branded UGC promotions with the Groupers and YouTubes of the world that integrate storylines, characters and on-show events will be most effective to engage viewers. Offering fans the chance for their own content to be voted on by other fans and judged by writers and cast will add an extra level of validity to promotions, and the ultimate payoff of fan content shown as a 10-second slot amid commercials will keep viewers from fast forwarding on their DVRs.
2006 was a first big step for cable and network shows to legitimize distributed content and embrace it for the value of the audience. To further leverage this online interest and audience, network based websites evolved beyond a show schedule to become more of a destination.
2007 will bring more fan involvement in the form of UGC promotions, a more strategic link between both hosted and distributed content with some networks cross promoting shows based on fan preference or past behavior. Cable networks will begin to develop distributed content promotions that include local cable operators to avoid disintermediation and benefit both through increased subscription and viewership.
Mike Wokosin is VP of interactive at The Cannery. .