Ripple Effect

Flowing from TV screens to laptops to iPods to cell-phones, content is wherever consumers want it to be

When Sports Illustrated came out with its 43rd annual swimsuit issue in February, the beauteous subjects didn't just grace glossy printed pages. Rather, the company transformed the magazine into a multi-platform extravaganza with streaming video, a TNT special, iTunes videos, cell-phone wallpapers and an on-demand cable channel - all featuring the same swimsuit models as the long-established print issue.

While 70 million people thumbed through the ad-packed print version, the Web site,, saw 300 million page views and 4 million video streams (Honda sponsored). And that's on top of the ad-supported on-demand cable channel (Honda), top-selling iTune videos and mobile wallpapers and videos. Sponsors like Dasani rode the wave across most platforms. It is not the kind of multi-platform tsunami that hits often, but when it does, the old notion of discrete media platforms starts to disappear so that the media and its sponsors simply become ubiquitous. "It doesn't matter which platform it begins with," says Jeff Price, SI digital president. "It is the idea, and then you work through how to engage them."

The whole affair was just one example of the fast-changing media world, where the same content is seeping across a wide array of platforms.

Consider, TV is pouring video assets online, while magazines and newspapers are creating and syndicating their own video for the Web. Additionally, Internet companies AOL and Yahoo hosted their own "upfronts" this year. If the borders between TV, the Internet, magazines, radio and newspapers haven't yet totally dissolved, they're at least becoming more porous.

Filling the Digital Pond

For consumers, distinctions between platforms are already starting to blur. Most 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed by BIGResearch access media content in at least seven ways other than TV; between 60 and 70 percent download video content online. A Nielsen//NetRatings study showed that almost 40 percent of the total time users spend on and almost 30 percent of time spent on ABC's site occur during primetime. "People are not making distinctions of silos," says Joe Pilotta, vice president of BIGResearch. "This is going on in a non-linear fashion."

"We are seeing consumers blending the ways they choose to engage with content," adds Alan Schanzer, North America managing partner for MEC Interaction. "We need to think more about the way consumers consume content, how that differs by the type of content, and why and where they are consuming it."

Meanwhile, TV networks CBS, NBC and Fox aim to go non-linear as quickly as possible, with plans to hyper-distribute next season's primetime into every digital pond where users assemble. CBS is evolving from "a content company to an audience company," said interactive president Quincy Smith, when launching the CBS Interactive Audience Network.

Audiences create their own media silos now on social networks, blogs and portals, so CBS wants to push episodic content everywhere, from AOL to Xbox 360, from the Brightcove video network to Slingboxes and mobile.

And rivals NBC Universal and News Corp. are joining forces for a venture that will let users mash up primetime schedules into their own genre- or brand-specific channels. Still unnamed, the project claims that with portal distribution partners like MSN and Yahoo, it will reach 96 percent of Internet users. Months before its launch, the NBC/News Corp. portal signed up seven marketer clients, including GM and Schweppes. "There might be limitless inventory [online], but it is not professionally produced in a manner that [advertisers] will feel comfortable associating their brand with," says George Kliavkoff, chief digital officer of NBCU.

Flattened platforms mean level playing fields. Old media now swim in a vast sea of "multiple providers competing for money," says Jeremy Allaire, CEO of online video aggregator Brightcove. Magazine, music labels and newspaper brands are among Brightcove's 4,000 online video channels, which will include CBS. Warner Music, Meredith and Time Inc. magazines all have video production divisions now.

Media buyers like Schanzer say they support the NBC/News Corp. move, because "it validates the potential for significant scale 'off-network' and implies that the more traditional media companies are making serious adjustments to the current business model."

Yet as companies rush to place video online, a new question emerges: "Who is a TV network?" asks Allaire. And who is a magazine or newspaper, for that matter.

Print media and Web startups have an inherent online advantage over traditional TV, Allaire suggests. Print media tends to iterate more quickly and attract deeper end-user involvement, while digital startups are more willing to experiment with ad and sponsorship models. "They are going to be pretty good about providing new opportunities for advertisers," he says.

Crafting the Assets

Media buyers remain circumspect about multi-platform intentions, however. "We're trying to figure out the value of Innertube on CBS," says Eric Bader, senior vice president and director of digital connections at MediaVest. The old platform sensibilities may be crumbling, but that only accelerates the need for flowing content to take the shape of its various containers. He adds that very few TV shows have extended well into other mediums so far.

"It's up to us to bring our assets to bear, to build cross-platform ideas that are based on client need," says Sports Illustrated's Price. Hoping to extend the magazine's swimsuit mojo into other franchises, it tied Coke to fantasy football coverage across magazine, online and mobile. "They set objectives and we were able to craft the assets," says Price.

NBC's "Heroes 360 Experience" genuinely supplemented the hit series with online sites, new character revelations and even dual-screen programming synced to the show. Media agency OMD managed a Nissan sponsorship across the screens, which resulted in 20 million episode streams and 200,000 mobile Web page views.

Cross-platform one-offs are nice, but still very limited for now. "They are marketing experiments and press releases," says Tejpaul Bhatia, who helped develop the ESPN360 broadband distribution platform and now produces multi-platform storytelling projects. Media companies are a long way from programming effectively across platforms, because "it has to come from the creative source," he argues, and get into the development cycle. A "CSI" mystery might start with an interactive online hunt and culminate with the on-air episode.

By and large, however, the TV development process is too calcified to reorganize for true cross-platform creativity. "There has to be some major disruption. Everyone thought it would change from YouTube, but that was not enough," says Bhatia. He warns that it will take years for real ingenuity to emerge from today's online experimentation.

"TV is where you will make money; online is where you will build brand and audience," he predicts. Select mega-properties may hit a sweet spot on all access points, but different formats will continue to favor discrete brands and content ideas. "It's not the death of the platforms; it's the birth of the platforms," he argues.

Kliavkoff acknowledges that creating content that can be accessed across any platform requires new development strategies. NBC, for instance, now evaluates properties for cross-platform ancillary content potential. More fundamentally, however, the nets probably will look to own rather than license properties as this blended marketplace evolves, if only to avoid the current hassles involved in securing multi-platform rights.

But the most unexpected byproduct of the diminishing platforms is aggressive cooperation among competitors like NBC and News Corp.'s Fox. Traditional media seems to acknowledge now that the only way to get digital scale fast is to partner up, blend their content and let the user mix and match networks and brands at will. Within its new portal, NBC/Fox are ready to recommend rival properties if they serve consumers' tastes. Kliavkoff says he is confident that "the discovery mechanism leads to incremental business. Even if they are not an exclusive partner, there are symbiotic relationships that someone watching a partner might deliver to us."

Melting and Morphing

Virtually everyone agrees that the old agency platform silos have to melt, morph and integrate along with the users and the media. Agencies tend to acknowledge this shift, but appear reluctant to fully embrace it. "They still don't understand that the silos are not working," says Pilotta. Moving "advertising" online just misses the interactive opportunities to solve consumer problems. "They seem to want to put 2D advertising into a four-dimensional world and just stick ads in different platforms," he says.

Of course, there are exceptions, with some agencies at least attempting to become more agile. MediaVest, for example, now embeds digital specialists into account teams. "There is no disincentive or specific incentive to go with one channel over the other," says Eric Bader.

Still, despite agencies' recognition that consumers might view the same TV program on a range of devices - TV sets, iPods, computers, cell phones, to name some - efforts to develop different ads for different platforms have lagged. Agencies still tend to trot out the same 30-second spot created for television - or an abridged 15-second version - for a variety of different media. But blended media needs new platform-specific ad formats as desperately as it needs iterated content. Users show high frustration over long and repeated pre-rolls on digital content. NBC announced it would limit pre-roll lengths for short online clips to 15 seconds.

"There is a big disconnect between the new media platform leaders and the people who fund the production and the overall campaign," says Bader.

More complexity is coming. The emerging digital distribution strategy appears to be a hybrid of old and new media. Big media destinations will try to draw the masses but the content will proliferate to partners and even to social networks. "Media buyers will have to re-aggregate up all the niche players and the branded content" to get scale, says Allaire.

Finding ways to define and segment an audience pool across on-air, online and mobile metrics will be hard enough, but how does one value free-flowing content in different contexts? Is a "24" episode or newspaper article viewed on a MySpace profile as valuable to sponsors as one viewed at the branded portals? Will hyper-distributed media have to stratify their pricing accordingly? "This is a metrics issue for the industry," says Allaire. "When they look at a pool of inventory, where does it live, and is a destination site valued highest and viral lowest?"

Industry executives maintain that they have time to figure out these questions. Kliavkoff, for one, says the current era is the beginning of a transition period - one that could last as long as 15 to 20 years. MediaVest's Bader adds that broadcast TV probably won't change much in the near future. "It is more likely that liquid content will adapt to the Web and mobile in a Darwinian way. The best formats will win out."

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