The days are gone when a cable network could simply post some cast bios or behind-the-scenes video on a website and consider it a multi-platform initiative.
The more modern version: The March 31 five-screen blowout by The Weather Channel for the debut of From the Edge With Peter Lik—a series that treks along with the photographer as he seeks the perfect landscapes to shoot. In addition to airing on the TV channel, the premiere episode streamed simultaneously at Weather.com, on mobile phones, and on the network’s iPad app. The fifth screen—the one that literally topped them all—was a 10-story digital billboard in New York’s Times Square, which played the entire 30-minute program.
While The Weather Channel’s efforts for From the Edge represent impressive multimedia-tasking, the network certainly is not alone.
A growing number of cable networks, plumped up with original content that more than holds its own against broadcast network fare, are eagerly looking to add new distribution possibilities. That trend in original programming, combined with the steady advance of technologies in iPads and smartphones—along with the growing distribution muscles of companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, and DirecTV—has created new possibilities in multi¬platforming. And this will be worthy of consideration for those who’ll sit at either side of the negotiating tables as this year’s upfront plays out.
“As an agency, a big part of what we do is follow the content, and what we’ve been seeing lately is a major proliferation of platforms and how they are used,” says Francois Lee, vp/activation director at MediaVest. “Multiplatform has become a Holy Grail for the industry. The tricky part is how you use it so that it makes the most sense for the brand.”
Lee isn’t the only one pondering how multiplatform relates to branding. Sean Cunningham, president/CEO of the Cable-television Advertising Bureau, believes that, since each cable network comes with its own personality, assets, and challenges, an effective multiplatform strategy for one channel might not work for others.
“One of the great engines of cable’s growth has been that all these networks are vibrant media brands that transcend any one media platform,” Cunningham contends.
Cunningham argues that cable’s explosion of original programming across a variety of networks—along with the industry’s success with brand extensions via today’s media platforms—has been a boon to the bottom line. Cable has strung together ad-sales gains all the way back to 2001, when the networks counted $11.8 billion in advertising revenue.
That trend culminated in 2010, according to CAB figures, when cable raked in $20.5 billion in national ad sales, a 10 percent jump from the $18.7 billion brought in during the previous year. On the local front, cable accounted for $6.6 billion in sales, a 20 percent pop.
Despite hard times brought forth by the recession, many cable networks have been able to burnish their brands by building strong rosters of on-camera assets that helped build communities of viewers who could be engaged on a number of media platforms. One way to do that is with breakout shows. Another way is by cultivating a deep bench of on-air talent—such as msnbc.
With programs including Hardball and The Rachel Maddow Show, msnbc has beat out CNN two years running in primetime among adults in the 25-54 demographic. That success helped the channel build out a number of robust multiplatform initiatives, specifically on the Web and on iTunes, where an iPad app for Maddow’s show debuted in mid-January of this year.
Phil Griffin, the president of msnbc, says it’s important to not just plop content from one medium to another. The content that flows to each media distribution point needs to be sculpted in a unique way to have the greatest chance of appealing to that audience, Griffin says.
“Rachel’s app is a great example,” he says, referring to the free program that includes access to Maddow’s tweets (along with those of her guests and fans) and blog, and an archive of her 20 last shows. “The experience you get on TV is slightly different from the one you get elsewhere. People are going there for a unique perspective; they’re going there because of Rachel’s insights.
“As a network, we know we have a community. And that community exists on the Web and on many other platforms.”
Adds Rita Ferro, executive vp, Disney media sales and marketing, “When we create a show, we look at it as storytelling across many platforms. We look at how the content can live through added value opportunities.”
Like MediaVest’s Lee, Greg Schaeffer, president/CEO of spot cable rep firm NCC Media also sees the need to follow today’s content. His company just released a new sales tool called I+, an ad sales tool designed to allow local TV buying on cable systems and satellite and telecom systems, giving advertisers one-stop shopping in local markets.
“I think cable programming will continue to be distributed to new and different devices in the future,” he says. “We should be able to follow that and provide an even larger audience for advertisers.”
Game On at Syfy
The Syfy cable channel is extending its brand into the social gaming arena. Later this year, the NBCUniversal-owned network plans to debut a suite of games on Facebook with titles designed to fit squarely into the science fiction and fantasy genres.
The initiative is meant to grab a chunk of the worldwide social gaming market, which, according to a report by ThinkEquity, is expected to reach $12.1 billion by 2014. And, according to Alan Seiffert, senior vp of Syfy Ventures, the games will feature high-quality production values.
Some of the games will be tied to Syfy programming or even other content at NBCU. “We think the next phase of gaming will be driven by media brands, and we have access to some of the best in the business,” Seiffert says.
And he contends advertisers will be involved as well. Marketers will be able to either underwrite the games in some form or even be integrated into the action. “But that has to be done in the right way,” Seiffert says. “If a company is integrated, it has to be very organic and it has to make sense with what’s going on in the game.”