Comcast Finds Free VOD Boom With Kids, NFL

It's hard to turn down anything for free--and Comcast's users clearly have responded, viewing three times more of its Free Video-on-Demand programming than just a year ago.

Comcast has been aggressively promoting its slate of Free VOD offerings. Last September's launch of NFL OnDemand, which began its first week with 600,000 views, grew to roughly 2.9 views in its first month, and ended the season with 8.6 million views.

Last month, the number one cable operator unveiled its FVOD for kids with 50 hours of programming a month for 25 different childrens' series. So far, the kids' targeted FVOD has attracted more than 4.3 million users.

"Overall, we've had over 100 million programs viewed OnDemand in March 2005, which is three times higher than March 2004," a Comcast spokeswoman said. "People browse through OnDemand much as they would through a library. They will find things that they might not typically watch in a linear format and give it a shot in OnDemand. For example, Noggin debuted their holiday movie in 2004, called 'Franklin.' They debuted it on Comcast OnDemand two weeks before it would be available on the Noggin linear channel. They used it as a way to drive viewer interest."

Also in the last month, Comcast signed a deal with Rentrak, which is providing monthly measurement of its OnDemand offerings. Comcast's and Rentrak's agreement also looks at four standardized metrics: the number of VOD-enabled set-top boxes in a Designated Market Area; total views by program per month; the number of unique set-top boxes viewing a program by month; and the total minutes viewed by program per month.

"Our OnDemand business is on track to reach more than one billion views in 2005, and so accurate and timely measurement is the next step in the evolution of VOD," said Page Thompson, vice president and general manager of Comcast's OnDemand services unit.

The OnDemand services are available to roughly 85 percent of the company's customers.

A recent Forrester Research study noted that the lack of free content appears to be suppressing demand for VOD television services. VOD is now available to nearly 19 million homes--or about 75 percent of the U.S. digital cable universe, Forrester's Josh Bernoff noted in his report on the various ad models for VOD.

While movie buys and usage of subscription content such as HBO On-Demand are increasing, the model is languishing to some degree, largely because of the reluctance of cable operators to pay for quality programming. Comcast, the nation's number one MSO, refuses to pay directly for FVOD content. For the most part, other operators feel the same way, Bernoff said.

But Comcast executives insist that they are having no trouble attracting content, let alone advertisers to support it and viewers to watch it. "In the TV markets that are in Comcast's Eastern Division [New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford-New Haven, Springfield-Holyoke, and Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York], free VOD usage is through the roof," said Ted Hodgins, senior director, new product marketing, Comcast-Eastern Division. "We are substantially breaking usage records every month. Free VOD orders surpass SVOD orders like HBO, Showtime, etc., on a regular basis--and have since about November 2004 in Philly and even earlier in New England--August 2004. Our order mix is about 60 percent to 67 percent free OnDemand each month, depending on the market."

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