Short Order

STARTING A COUPLE OF WEEKENDS ago, kids could watch the Olsen twins getting doused with green slime—and then, as kids like to do, watch it again and again and again.

The clip, from last year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, was available in a promotional podcast on iTunes aimed at driving kids to watch this year’s awards on live TV—or, if they chose, online via TurboNick, the network’s broadband platform. TurboNick also featured an exclusive, hour-long pre-show from the Orange Carpet outside the event. During the program, viewers could select from multiple camera shots and check out what was happening backstage or in the audience.

Nickelodeon’s multimedia coverage illustrates the rapidly changing face of the cable business. In the new cable universe, fans are super-served, virtually no halfway-decent content is left on the cutting room floor, and no network sees itself merely as a TV channel anymore.

“You need to be where your consumer is,” says Geraldine Laybourne, chairman/CEO of Oxygen Media. “If you build a brand today, you are not just a TV network.”

With ESPN launching branded, content-rich mobile phones, CNN producing a multicamera, subscription-based online news product, and various nets launching broadband channels on the Web, it’s clear that some cable channels are way out in front of the explosion in media-changing technology. Across the business, networks are compiling research, debating strategies and hatching plans aimed at helping their brands compete in an increasingly platform-agnostic media world.

Clearly, when it comes to second- and third-screen distribution, some networks have had a much easier time than others—take sports (ESPN), news (CNN) and entertainment. “Two of the things to get early traction [in this space] are comedy and music videos,” says Brian Graden, president of entertainment, MTV Networks’ music group and president of Logo. Graden has helped launch products including MTV Overdrive, VH1’s VSPOT and Comedy Central’s Motherload. “Also, anybody who has a great archive has a huge advantage,” he adds.

Certain long-form content can easily be edited down to short takes. “We are well served by having a brand that is really malleable without changing who we are,” explains Suzanne Kolb, E!’s executive vp, marketing and communications. “I’m not sure every network has that flexibility. They are figuring out other ways, but they have a larger job than I do.”

With alternate distribution, ownership is key. “When we started Scripps networks 11 years ago, we decided to own our content,” says Burton Jablin, executive vp of Scripps Networks. “Did we see the Internet and know we would be able to stream content? I don’t know that for sure. But it’s proven wise.”

All of this broadband video content requires technological infrastructure as well—something those networks that have long embraced the Web have a better handle on. “We made huge investments in technology 10 years ago,” says Weather Channel president Deborah Wilson. “We investment-spent for a while. But we knew that consumers would use our applications. Entertainment networks had a much tougher decision. I know that a lot of networks are really struggling with that now. They are doing that at a different time and place.”

Whatever the reason—be it lack of ownership, the absence of malleable content or technological shortfall—some of cable’s biggest players have stayed away from broadband. Broad-reach, general-entertainment nets TNT, TBS, A&E, Lifetime and USA have been conspicuously quiet. Graden’s guess is that the strategy might be deliberate. “For example, if you watch TBS, they just want you to feel comfortable,” he says. “Some networks are very ‘lean-back’ in nature.”

Some of those networks—particularly TNT and TBS—are built around off-network series and most often don’t have the contractual right to distribute the shows elsewhere.

Coleman Breland, exec vp, sales and marketing for Turner Network Sales, says while the company explores broadband for TNT and TBS, it is imperative the nets remain true to their strengths: “What form of content works best for a general-entertainment network? Do you put The Closer on a cell phone?” Turner properties, save for CNN and Cartoon Network, have elected now to focus on VOD over broadband.

Same for A&E. Steve Ronson, senior vp, enterprises, says the network is in the process of figuring out a Web strategy. “Short form is vastly different from producing long form—it’s an adjustment,” he says. One insider says the company has been held back by a traditionally conservative, slow-moving ownership group. Yet, Ronson says, two broadband channels—one tied to A&E, the other to the History Channel—will launch in the next few months. “Broadband is where our next energy is,” he says.

Craig Woerz, managing partner at the Boston-based agency Media Storm, whose clients include several cable nets, urges a cautious approach to new media. “The industry needs to step back a bit and say: How does this apply to my network? We say to our clients: Talk to us about why you need to be on iPods.”

Adi Kishore, director of media entertainment properties for the Yankee Group, says that each net’s core demographics and content should drive decisions about a multiplatform strategy. “If you are a network that isn’t seeing [your audience shift to the Web], the urgency isn’t there,” he says. “Plus, networks have to ask: What is your content? How well does it translate?”

However, no net can avoid making such decisions for too long. “It’s not a yes/no decision—it’s more of a go slow/go fast decision,” Kishore says.

One “lean-back” network is starting to move faster. “From a strategic standpoint, we’re really trying to expand the digital assets we have,” says Lifetime Online vp, business and marketing development Lisa Black. Leading the digital charge is reality series Cheerleader Nation, for which the net launched a wide array of companion content online. That includes cheerleading lessons via video, diaries of show participants and footage shot by the show’s stars. Cheerleader Nation’s premiere last month delivered historic traffic. “This is a breakthrough for us,” says Black. “It is very difficult to do short-form content for movies. For us to have this new series gives us an opportunity.”

Lifetime plans to expand its broadband offering through the new Lifetime Video Lounge and push a new mobile offering.

While Lifetime is making a brave leap, other nets have made multiplatform production part of their DNA. Consider Comedy Central, which has a full slate of original series in development for its broadband platform, Motherload. They include All Access: Middle Ages, which spoofs cable’s ubiquitous list shows, and The Ghost, a parody of classic supernatural sitcoms like Bewitched. The net also has committed to eight two-and-a-half minute episodes of Samurai Love God, following the adventures of a sexually charged Samurai hero.

The strategy has permanently changed the way the net does business, execs say. “I’m not a TV-content developer; I’m a content developer,” says Lou Wallach, Comedy Central’s senior vp, original programming and development. “I’m not limited to 22-minute ideas. Now I’ve got a platform for other things.”

Another network jumping into the broadband space is Scripps, which launched two broadband-only channels last year, as well as an original online video series for the Food Network called Eat This with Dave Lieberman. Jablin says that while the Lieberman concept worked better as an online offering, its production was not unlike that of a TV show. “One thing we learned is that you really can rely on the techniques you use with TV and apply them online,” he says. “There is a lot more in common with TV production that we thought.”

Perhaps no channel has cozied up to multiplatform to the extent that Nickelodeon has. Whether it’s streaming the Kids’ Choice Awards on TurboNick or producing regular podcasts for Zoey 101, multiplatform content is simply part of the overall production process now. Tom Ascheim, executive vp, general manager of Nickelodeon Digital Television, explains: “There are different implementations for different shows. Mostly it’s people being conscious of it from the beginning. We want 22 episodes, plus X, Y and Z. You make a lot more than you end up showing. But it does have to be interesting. You can’t just pick up stuff that was on the floor.”

Adds Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel: “Everybody is experimenting. I don’t believe that anyone has the answer. Viewers’ habits are changing. All of us are in a process of understanding format models.” She says Sci Fi will launch a broadband channel this year, with USA to follow, possibly next year.

One can expect a wave of broadband launches this year, in fact. The Weather Channel plans an online channel featuring content related to climate and the environment. Also moving aggressively into broadband is ABC Family, which this summer launches the broadband platform Family Room.

Yet another player is Discovery Communications, which plans two broadband nets this year: Discovery Channel Beyond and Travel Channel Beyond. The company also is developing broadband nets for TLC, Animal Planet and Discovery Health Channel and is launching a subscription-based mobile offering.

One point of debate remains just how to program broadband. While no one disagrees that mobile video should be limited to short clips, some believe full-length episodes will eventually become more commonplace on broadband platforms given brisk sales on Apple’s iTunes Music Store. “It’s not a matter of digitizing the entire library,” says Bravo president Laura Zalaznick. “But did you think six months ago that people would be watching a two-hour drama on a two-inch screen?”

Another question for cable programmers: Where does one draw the line? “One big question for all this, which nobody has the answer to, is: When is too much?” says Hammer. “When do financial upside and positive exposure begin and end? When do the ratings start to soften?”

That was definitely a question for Cartoon Network when it decided to put full-length episodes of its young-male-aimed Adult Swim content online, says Paul Condolora, senior vp, general manager for Cartoon Network New Media. But so far, those fears have been assuaged. “When you look at the internal numbers, they really mirror each other,” Condolora says. “Success in one medium drives success in the other.”