Cable To Give Agencies The Data They Demand

NEW ORLEANS -- A year after he jilted American Association of Advertising Agencies 2004 conference attendees, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts offered attendees at this year's conference what he described as a "make-good." As it turns out, he also handed out a bonus unit, announcing a major step toward giving Madison Avenue some important new cable subscriber data it has been chafing at the bit for--uniform, timely data on video-on-demand (VOD) usage.

Addressing 4As in a keynote on Thursday, Roberts said the cable industry has struck a deal with Rentrak, a third-party data processor, to begin providing advertisers and agencies with uniform, monthly VOD usage data that will be supplied "three to four times faster than we do now."

"It's a big step," said Roberts, adding that the cable industry still has much to accomplish before it can deliver the kind of data media planners and buyers really want. He said the cable industry is already having discussions with other data suppliers, including Nielsen Media Research, to accelerate the process.

But after hearing Roberts speak, Adam Gerber, senior vice president-group director of strategy and innovation at MediaVest USA, suggested that Madison Avenue might want to be careful what it wishes for. During his speech, Roberts revealed impression data on VOD usage, including the fact that Comcast alone now delivers 80 million VOD subscriber views per month--up from 20 million a year ago.

"It just seems like we're going to be overwhelmed with data," said Gerber, moderating "On-Demand Video: Promise and Perils," a panel discussion that followed Roberts' speech. Issues surrounding VOD took center stage during day two of the 4As conference, supplanting the angst at previous conferences over digital video recorders like TiVo--which are now being viewed as a subset of on-demand TV platforms, including those provided by cable and satellite operators.

During his panel, Gerber also announced that ID!A, a two-year-old industry trade group, has established a baseline set of advertising formats for on-demand TV applications, and was reaching out to Madison Avenue for additional input. The outreach is part of an effort by the industry to catalogue which on-demand advertising formats are working and which ones are not, as a first step toward establishing formal industry guidelines, according to Pat Dunbar, principal at DiMA Group and one of the ID!A's organizers.

Dunbar said the move is designed to capitalize on a surge of interest in on-demand advertising that has been sparked among marketers and agencies in the past six months. She hopes the effort will help avoid the litany of advertising formats that set the Internet advertising marketplace back before the online industry established standardized advertising units.

Currently, Dunbar said ID!A has identified three broadcast categories of on-demand advertising--ranging from short, pre-roll ad messages that precede VOD programs to enhanced, longer-form content--and 17 discrete advertising formats with them. "We haven't defined all the pieces yet. That's why we're soliciting input," she said. "We're looking to focus attention on the unit the experts in the field think will have the most impact."

Dunbar estimated that 10 percent of U.S. homes currently have DVRs and about 50 percent are capable of receiving VOD. During his presentation, Roberts said Comcast projections for DVR penetration range from between "half" of all U.S. homes to about 25 million homes by 2010. "VOD really represents the best of what convergence can be," Roberts said.

Further, Roberts said the high VOD usage levels reported by Comcast reflected a pronounced increase in free VOD products being rolled out. He said that Comcast currently offers its VOD subscribers between 2,000 and 4,000 programs per month, which will increase to between 8,000 and 10,000 programs this year. "Ninety to 95 percent of these shows are free--at no additional cost," he said.

Those free programs, of course, are expected to be underwritten by various forms of advertising, but Gerber's panel wasn't exactly sure how that advertising model would ultimately manifest. "The question is what's the business model--ours--forget about the cable industry's. The basic business model is what we have to figure out," said David J. Coffey, vice president-director of PHDiQ.

Ultimately, that model will prove to be more like the Internet's than like television's, suggested another panelist--Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer, Publicis Groupe Media. "My sense is the way people manage themselves on the Internet today is the way they will manage everything," he said, adding: "Everything tells me it's going to be over IP." Beyond that, Tobaccowala said it would lead to a very different media planning approach than is currently used for television: "It's a re-aggregation model. It's not a segmentation model. It's how you build up one at a time."

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