C-SPAN has started looking to the future of video distribution in earnest as cord-cutting has taken a big bite out of the affiliate fees that support its public-service platforms.
Having recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, the cable public-affairs programmer that blankets Capitol Hill and beyond is looking at how to fund its nonprofit operations for the next 40.
After watching per-subscriber affiliate fees fall faster than projected, C-SPAN has begun moving to an ad-supported — or at least ad-aided — model on its online platforms, which includes social media channels, podcasts and the website.
Peter Kiley, VP of affiliate relations and communications (with an emphasis on the former), has been a major player in that effort, along with national accounts manager Rachel Katz, whose job it is to "optimize” internal revenue, C-SPAN said.
C-SPAN isn’t looking to become a for-profit venture, just a nonprofit looking to better cover operational costs in a world where it is becoming harder to monetize traditional channels reliant only on dwindling license fees. It’s a tough time for a lot of programmers, but with affiliate fees as its main source of revenue — there are some licensing revenues — C-SPAN was particularly affected.
Last December, C-SPAN quietly began putting ads on its YouTube page. “Nobody noticed,” Kiley said. “We didn’t hear a peep because people are so used to it.”
And that page has been delivering eyeballs in recent weeks. During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, C-SPAN’s coverage was the top trending video in the world for a couple of days, C-SPAN said, with almost 1.3 million simultaneous live viewers for the stream.
Next, it added podcast ads, both preroll and midroll.
Wading Into a New Stream?
C-SPAN is looking across the board at how to monetize its trusted, no-talking-heads take on such content without impacting the core mission of providing “long-form, unfiltered coverage of events.”
The low-hanging fruits were the YouTube channel and podcasts. C-SPAN has an outside agency to sell the podcast ads. It does not have a big podcast audience, but every little bit of monetization helps.
C-SPAN’s most prominent step, which it took in August, was selling ads on the C-SPAN.org website — but no pop-ups, Kiley hastens to add, because he thinks it is important to be as unobtrusive on the user experience as possible.
C-SPAN is also letting viewers opt out of the ads, all of which Kiley said will be skippable. It will still provide the content for those users with ad blocking enabled, but will be re-evaluating that over time depending on how many people are using the feature.
“By rolling out limited advertising on our digital platforms, including our YouTube channel, on podcasts and on C-SPAN.org, we are beginning to diversify our revenue streams,” he said.
There are currently no ads on C-SPAN’s traditional TV channels or C-SPAN Radio, but nothing is off the table, Kiley said, pointing out that the organization is still in the early stages of ad exploration. “It is certainly something that we are talking about,” he said, including whether that would be traditional ads for cars or tennis shoes, or more of a sponsored programming model, as has long been the PBS approach.
C-SPAN is using Google’s ad management platform to handle its new monetization strategy.
Kiley said cable industry support remains strong, but that C-SPAN is facing an unpredictable video future. Unlike nonprofit broadcast TV, which gets about 15% of its funding from the government, C-SPAN gets no such funding and isn’t looking for any.
Given that more people are not taking the video portion of the cable bundle, C-SPAN is looking to get on the radar, and potentially into the affiliate-fee pockets, of the virtual multichannel video programming distributors.
C-SPAN’s channels, 1, 2 and 3, are currently not carried on YouTube TV or Hulu Plus Live TV, and it has reached out to both. “We would like Google and [Hulu owner] Disney to support C-SPAN’s public service,” he said, acknowledging that they have regular conversations with the streaming platforms but neither so far has agreed to carry the channels.
Google arguably could use the feel-good story of supporting the iconic public-affairs platform given that tech giants are a big target in Washington these days.
Kiley said C-SPAN is still experimenting with ad size and placement, but there are prohibitions on political ads and advocacy campaigns. And while the Google ad platform does use algorithms and targets ads based on browser history, it also allows for C-SPAN to limit the ad categories, and C-SPAN has a lot of restrictions in place, Kiley said.
There are dozens of categories that can be checked off on the Google ad management back end to exclude ad categories. “We’ve checked a lot of those,” Kiley said.
For example, while a C-SPAN.org user will find ads for Volkswagens or siding, don’t look for ads for sexual aids. The most important exclusion, though, is overt political ads, Kiley said, though they might well be the most lucrative.
Kiley said the ad effort is helping teach C-SPAN how to use new tools to develop new revenue, but it is not a replacement for the lost subscriber revenue. It probably never will be if the cord-cutting trend continues, which kind of blew C-SPAN’s five-year projections for subscriber losses out of the water.
Given those accelerated fee losses, ads on the YouTube channel and podcasts and website are not an immediate solution, particularly given that C-SPAN is not doing direct sales or using sophisticated ad tech that others use, though it is “putting its toe in the water.”
C-SPAN currently has a minimal on-demand presence, but it is starting to look at ad supported video-on-demand (AVOD).
Kiley said while it rarely does AVOD offerings, it has a huge library of about 260,000 hours of content to tap.
He said cable-operator affiliates — the CEOs of Comcast, Cox Communications and Charter Communications all sit on the board — are providing strategic guidance on things like launching free, ad-supported streaming TV services (like Xumo or Pluto) and virtual channels and other new ways of monetizing content, and that C-SPAN is looking to get in on that action.
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