Network TV and the Web: Fox’s Take

hardietankersleyThis has been the year TV networks finally embraced the web. As 2008 wraps up, nearly every broadcaster posts its shows online within half a day of first airing them on TV. And the audience for such programming is growing, especially among desirable younger demographics. Twelve percent of teens and 11 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds watch online TV at least once a week, respectively, as compared to 4 percent of 35- to 64-year-olds, according to Knowledge Networks.

But network strategies aren’t cut from the same cloth. For instance, ABC employs a dedicated premium player, for which users must download a plug-in, and mandates that even official partners send users to the player to watch its long-form content. Meanwhile, Hulu, a project from News Corp. and NBC Universal, has made freely embeddable content the norm, allowing online publishers large and small to publish snippets, full episodes and even movies from its library, and in some cases share ad revenue.

There’s no real public measure of which particular network is tops in online streaming, though Hulu (which now has more than 100 content providers) does have a significant traffic lead, rising to the No. 6 video site in the 8 months since its launch, according to Nielsen, and seeing an 87 percent increase in unique visitors from September to October, according to comScore. It’s instructive to consider each network’s overall strategy holistically, and we recently got a chance to do that with Fox, which sent Hardie Tankersley, who leads online strategy for Fox Broadcasting, to our NewTeeVee Live conference.

Fox posts most of its shows online — though it doesn’t control web distribution for a little one called American Idol or for a few others with expensive music rights. Tankersley was adamant that syndicating content online is additive. He said that generally speaking, syndication adds another 50 percent of viewership on top of what Fox gets already.

However, there was a discrepancy between separate comments by Tankersley and Hulu CEO Jason Kilar at NewTeeVee Live. Tankersley attested to “more viewership on any given episode on Fox.com than on Hulu,” whereas Kilar said Fox “actually get[s] the majority of their business on Hulu now, relative to their own sites.” But either way, they agree business is booming. Kilar says Fox streams have tripled since Hulu launched, and Tankersley compared the last six weeks’ streaming numbers (since the fall season started) to a rocketship. Fox also reports unusually strong viewer engagement numbers.

Tankersley attested to different viewing habits on Fox.com proper as compared to aggregators; he said for the Fox marquee hits like House people go to Fox.com, but more niche shows, like It’s Always Sunny in Phildelphia, have won over new audiences on external sites (that show in particular has surprised many people with how often it’s near the top of the Hulu leaderboard). Fox also gets more lunchtime viewers compared to the primetime rush on Hulu, which has more of an audience of “cord cutters,” according to Tankersley.

Still, he admitted, online video minutes viewed are “almost invisible” compared to TV. On a graph of minutes viewed for TV and online, “you can’t make the chart big enough actually to have the little bar on the side,” he said.

Fox is actually fairly conservative (and we’re not talking Fox News; that’s handled separately) compared to other portals when it comes to advertising. Tankersley said the network favors midstream ads — though it does try to limit the number to one ad per break. Fox doesn’t offer the popular new overlay format whatsoever, and it doesn’t advertise anything besides other Fox content on the programming it licenses from studios. Why? “Studio agreements, guild agreements, implied endorsement issues,” Tankersley said. “Right now we’re very leery of that.” He named monetization as the biggest challenge in the coming year.

Tankersley thinks networks are well-positioned to succeed in online TV, and not necessarily because they have huge budgets and audiences on their side. Why? Partly because other people don’t get it. He says most web series to date have the wrong idea about the necessity of short-form content. “Everyone’s confusing this idea that people have a short attention span online. All you content creators, stop it! You can’t tell a good story in two minutes.” And even as traditional channel switching becomes an anachronism, Tankersley expects the power of its network to stick around. “You need to promote stuff on the back of other stuff,” he said.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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