Cable biz struggles with divergent online strategies

Execs say inconsistency in program availability impedes growth

When it comes to catch-up viewing, cable channels have a lot of catching up to do.

A glance at the opportunities viewers have to sample full-length episodes they might have missed shortly after they aired on TV reveals a dizzying hodgepodge of windowing strategies across digital platforms.

This jumble of options was brought into sharp relief in recent weeks by the spate of carriage fights between cablers and distribs, such as AMC’s ongoing battle with Dish Network and Viacom’s nine-day blackout on DirecTV. That sent their subscribers to the Internet in search of alternatives that were often hard to find.

Just look at a random sampling of the top series on cable this summer: USA Network makes most of its series available online 30 days after their premiere. Except that “Burn Notice” makes its second and third episode available (but not its season premiere) while “Necessary Roughness” makes the first four episodes available, as well as last season’s finale.

ABC Family’s “Bunheads” is available the day after it airs for one week, and then returns at a later date. Which may explain why the first three episodes were available online — as well as the seventh.

FX made the first three episodes of “Anger Management” accessible eight days after their initial airdate. Meanwhile, episodes from the current season of FX’s buzz magnet “Louie” aren’t online at all.

Welcome to the byzantine world of in-season digital syndication, where the inconsistencies that confuse viewers are just as frustrating to distribution execs at top cablers.

“If the industry could move faster to establish some kind of uniformity across the board, I think it would absolutely change how programmers would window content in the free, on-demand space,” said Denise Denson, exec VP of content distribution and marketing at MTV Networks.

What is delaying the multichannel TV world is a complex web of vested interests ranging from the cable and satellite operators that dictate most of the distribution parameters for programming to the studios that hold onto some of the rights to the content they license to the networks. Then there are the varying off-air marketing strategies, not to mention just old-fashioned indecision.

Programmers face a tough balancing act here. On the one hand, they don’t want to cannibalize the aud for premiere telecasts, reruns and even DVR playback within the first three days when advertising revenue is earned. Cablers also need to protect their relationships with operators that pay them a fortune in carriage fees.

On the other hand, programmers want to maximize the exposure of their shows in ways that can drive ratings back to on-air, dilute the appeal of piracy and capitalize on the momentum of online video in general.

In-season programming falls mostly into three buckets. The confusion reigns chiefly across the websites that are either the branded dot-com extensions of the networks or aggregator Hulu (Netflix has no in-season programming on its streaming service). There’s generally more consistency in the two other areas: the pay TV distributors’ VOD platforms where series are available as free rentals and electronic-sell-through platforms such as Apple’s iTunes, where episodes can be purchased.

“Our view is that it supports the cable value proposition because if you’re willing to pay $2.99 for ‘The Walking Dead,’ that makes basic cable look like a great bargain,” said AMC Networks COO Ed Carroll. “If we take that to Hulu, where there is not a dedicated charge and people can just come in and share that show, we feel that’s potentially more disruptive to the ecosystem.”

To a large degree, the inconsistencies are a reflection of the pre-TV Everywhere era. With so few deals in place between content companies and distributors to restrict content to digital platforms that require authentication, the opportunity to bring some uniformity to in-season distribution isn’t being realized.

“What we’re really trying to do as an industry is to get a point of consistent time-shifted product available on all devices adn platforms to pay TV subscribers,” said Mike Hopkins, president of distribution at Fox Networks.

It’s a challenge on the broadcast level as well. But the Big Four tend to be more consistent in providing next-day access to their programming online with the exception of Fox, which has imposed an eight-day delay on its episodes for those who aren’t subscribers to the handful of distributors with which it has TV Everywhere deals.

The CW is another matter entirely. The netlet cut its 72-hour delay to just eight hours in March on CWTV.com and Hulu in order to cater to its young-skewing, online-savvy auds.

Complicating the in-season window chaos is the paucity of proper measurement methods. Nielsen and Comscore don’t offer much beyond the most general traffic information on websites, and that data is entirely missing from wireless devices. “The fact that I can’t really tell an advertiser that his ads in that episode of ‘Jersey Shore’ were seen by 15% more people because it was seen on digital platforms is very frustrating,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, chief research officer at Viacom Media Networks. “It’s an obstacle to doing business.”

In-season programming rights became a flashpoint in last month’s battle between Viacom and DirecTV when episodes of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” were yanked off the Internet by the conglom, only to be reinstated days later when “Daily” host Jon Stewart mocked the decision on the air.

Comedy Central is perched on the liberal end of the distribution spectrum, making some of its highest-rated shows available online the next day because of its younger-skewing demographics and the perishable nature of its newsy content.

Viacom’s new deal with DirecTV involved no changes to its digital strategy, according to Denson, who said the satcaster did raise issues about having to pay for content that was getting free exposure. “It was raised as an issue by their team but nothing about our deal that we ended up with changed our rights,” she said.

Though there are plenty of discrepancies on in-season distribution within networks, some cable groups including AMC, Discovery and Turner stay on the conservative side and keep full episodes entirely offline — a reflection of their long-term aftermarket value. There are exceptions, however, like AMC’s recent decision to put on the season premiere of “Breaking Bad” after the network went dark on satcaster Dish last month.

Hopkins said networks seek out flexibility when it comes to getting new programming out in front of auds for marketing purposes, whereas they can afford to be more conservative with older shows that have already proved thesmelves. “Your hit series are the reason people are paying their cable bill,” he said. “But a first-season show isn’t a hit yet. We try to give those shows more opportunities for promotion and sampling.”

Getting the ability to put new programming out front often requires negotiations with the studio that produces the content in the event it isn’t owned by the same company. Studios with leverage can either get aggressive about retaining certain digital rights it hopes to exercise in pursuit of greater revenues or simply sit on them in the absence of any clear strategic direction. Either way, networks are incentivized to wrestle away as many of those rights from the studios as they can. “There are holdouts and holes here and there, but by and large, the networks are getting them,” Hopkins said.

(AJ Marechal contributed to this report.)