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You Want the Truthiness? Online Video Boosts Network Ratings

Digital Journal — The online video craze is scaring the spit out of TV network heads, but there’s at least one company who’s perfected the formula. Comedy Central has become a leader in bringing its top-notch programming to the Web, turning into a media superstar beyond the tube.

Although online video is still in its infancy, the success of YouTube and the hype encircling Joost is sending a clear message to broadcast TV: Adapt or die. Viewers aren’t content anymore to simply watch TV shows and visit a network’s site to read program summaries. Now people are demanding streaming shows, behind-the-scenes footage and instant access to programs they missed two hours earlier.

“TV is so 20th century,” Bill Maher once said, an appropriate declaration for a comedian who’s moved from TV to an online-only talk show on Amazon Fishbowl. Network execs would be wise to take Maher’s statement seriously, and start to invest in online initiatives that are timely visually pixel-perfect.

Comedy Central is a model worth emulating. Under its parent company Viacom, it has evolved into a new media success story that’s translated into a win-win situation. It’s a win for the public, who can access episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Sarah Silverman Program” mere hours after its broadcast airing. And it’s a win for the cable channel, whose ratings for prime-time shows have increased 12 months in a row. Nielsen Media Research found that Comedy Central is the No. 2 cable network among male viewers, just behind ESPN. And some Comedy Central shows attract audiences that are up to 70 per cent male, making advertisers slobber over that lucrative demographic.

The comedy station is soaring not only because of its original and hilarious programming. Its online home base, Motherload, has won rave reviews for streaming tons of content from its channel flawlessly (except for the obligatory buffering). The site lets you watch 17 exclusive Web shows, even offering the ability to embed videos into a favourite blog. Missed Stephen Colbert’s surreal interview with Willie Nelson? Go to Motherload and you can watch it, free. (One criticism, though: The Comedy Central site auto-plays video on its front page, which is a definite no-no in new media).

Streaming video is where all major networks should be heading, since this trend will only increase in popularity. Market research firm Insight expects the streaming video market to grow by 32 per cent annually over the next five years. Good video requires high-speed Internet, and the prospect looks hopeful: Pricewaterhouse-Coopers found that the amount of broadband-enabled homes worldwide will grow from 187 million in 2005 to 433 million in 2010. More broadband means quicker access to streaming videos, which only spells success for network TV that complements its programming with a robust online lineup.

It’s obvious the media titans are acting, even if they’re a bit late in the game. NBC Universal and News Corp. plan to launch a YouTube-type site that will feature “mostly-free” content from both networks. More immediately, NBC is tweaking its “TV 360” initiative by fine-tuning its media player and launching new online content to accompany series such as Heroes. NBC plans to include social-networking tools to give its site a dash of a MySpace vibe.

CBS struck a deal with YouTube last year that saw its network ratings jump. In a statement, CBS reported that “ratings for the network’s late-night programs, in particular, have shown notable increases. CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman has added 200,000 (+5 percent) new viewers…since the YouTube postings started.”

ESPN, Fox, HBO, what are you waiting for? Couch potatoes have an insatiable hunger for more than just TV that’s being fed to them like gruel in Oliver Twist; they want to jump off the couch and lounge on the futon with their laptop so they can watch high-quality shows anytime they want, completely free. And people have become so bombarded with advertising that a 20-second clip before a half-hour show isn’t going to turn off the online wanderer.

While Comedy Central is the network to watch, they shouldn’t be the lone leader in the online-video biz. It’s integral for network TV to come onboard in order to stay hip in a Net-powered world where yesterday’s market maven is today’s old fogey. If Comedy Central has taught us anything it’s to keep the clips coming, as soon as possible. Otherwise, a TV network’s website is just a glorified TV Guide.

And if networks ignore what Comedy Central has accomplished, they’ll get relegated to my “Dead To Me” list.

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