Strike up the broadband

Networks' experiments in online strike a chord with viewers.

If the wild, woolly year that was in broadband video could be said to have a poster child, perhaps it is Amanda Congdon. She first rose to fame as the face of Rocketboom, a newsy video blog site that became an indie online sensation on the strength of her charming wit. But Congdon left Rocketboom in July after a much-publicized huff over control of the venture. Rumors abounded as to where she would turn up next. By the time the year ended, she had landed gigs at both HBO and ABC News, where she will be engaged in on-air and online roles, taking her reputation to a whole new level.

Time will tell whether Congdon's career arc is an aberration or the direction broadband video will take in the future. Last year will be remembered for the explosion of user-generated content on the digital scene, from viral hubs like YouTube to a million blogs and social-networking pages, all promising to level the playing field in programming like never before.

But the established players in video at the TV networks and studios aren't about to be left behind. They are making moves, whether partnering or acquiring dot-com upstarts themselves or co-opting amateur talent like Congdon to maintain mind share.

"There are two obvious emerging segments: professional content and user-generated content," says Albert Cheng, executive vp digital media at Disney-ABC Television Group. "It will be interesting to see how they evolve."

As the National Television Academy gears up to recognize achievements in Advanced Media at the Consumer Electronics Show (running today-Thursday in Las Vegas) with an Emmy ceremony tonight, it seems TV networks aren't the only ones embracing broadband.

There were approximately 108 million online video users in the U.S. in 2006, according to eMarketer, which projects that number will reach 157 million users by 2010. Ten% of American Web surfers are watching TV broadcasts on the Internet, with news leading the way at 62%, followed by entertainment (50%), according to the Conference Board Consumer Research Center. But that doesn't necessarily cannibalize TV viewing; the same study found that three out of four online viewers reported no change to their TV viewing habits.

"The traditional media companies see the Internet as a way to extend the TV experience," says Hilmi Ozguc, founder and CEO of Maven Networks, a broadband video company that has worked with established players from CBS to Sony. "It's another window they can capitalize on with known franchises."

How much money comes flying through that window from consumers who want to own or rent episodes is debatable. Veronis Suhler Stevenson counted only $12 million in revenue from online electronic sell-through in 2006 but projects that total will reach $625 million by 2010.

However, making consumers pay for programming is not necessarily the way to go. CBS came to understand that first in December 2005 with an ad-supported streaming of the NCAA basketball March Madness tour. ABC followed suit last spring with, which has triggered 19 million stream requests among the six series it has made available, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger revealed in third-quarter results in late November.

"Hit shows work on every platform, but some shows have a demographic appeal that works better than others online," says Jeff Gaspin, president of cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy at NBC Universal.

Mindshare's online research group did a survey in October that found one-third of kids between the ages of 12-17 view TV broadcasts on the Internet. Another study from Ipsos Insight found that Americans ages 18-34 were twice as likely to download TV shows on the Internet than the rest of the population.

To tap into that market sometimes means peeping with the enemy.

In October, CBS set up a brand channel on YouTube with customized clips of the eye's sports, news and entertainment programming. It has worked wonders so far: CBS is now one of the hottest attractions on YouTube, generating 29.2 million views on the site in November alone. The next step to invade the viral space might not involve partnerships. Since YouTube was acquired by Google in November, the broadcasters are reportedly mulling the possibility of creating an alternative to YouTube, but the discussions are said to be preliminary at this point.

Short-form content might work better than full-length episodes or movies, an Associated Press-AOL Video poll found in September. Only one in five users have watched either format in its entirety. In addition, the survey discovered that only 7% of video users have ever paid to watch video online.

Gaspin begs to differ, noting that NBC Rewind has seen the average time spent by users skyrocket from 22-35 minutes in the course of a few short months. "We've done much better than we ever expected," he says. "There is a real future for longer-form programming online."

The networks also are starting to produce original online content. CBS' Innertube has spawned some low-budget programming that attracts advertisers. Upcoming projects include a scripted series, "The Good Life," featuring "Arrested Development's" Michael Cera.

Broadband video also will take even more unexpected twists and turns in the years ahead. Take the upcoming "Venice Project" being developed by Skype creators Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, which promises to do nothing less than revolutionize the transmission of TV programming through a legal peer-to-peer system.

And broadband video will likely find itself being exhibited on TV screens as technologies such as Intel's Viiv platform and Apple's iTV products forge high-resolution connections between the PC and the television. Video game consoles also are now in this market now that Microsoft's Xbox announced in November that it would begin offering a selection of video programming that can be viewed on TV sets.

With change a constant, innovating the viewing experience with community tools and more is a top priority. "User-generated content was definitely the buzz term of 2006," Gaspin says. "We've all responded, but we can't do that by just redistributing content. It has to be the starting point for a deeper experience."