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Fast fun and games

igh-speed cable Internet services used to sell themselves on just that point: high-speed access.

But the novelty of speed isn't quite what it used to be. So-called early adopters have had plenty of opportunity to catch the wave of fast Net access, and development of digital subscriber line (DSL) services by telcos, though slow, has steadily become a threat, despite cable's head start in the broadband space. So the cable service operators have sought to differentiate themselves with content designed to take advantage of those fast pipes.

An example of the move to make cable's broadband service more appealing occurred last month with a deal between MTVi and Excite@Home. MTVi will be providing proprietary content for Excite's music channel and supporting secure digital music downloads on the service. That will translate into interactive content to complement MTV's on-air productions, according to MTVi President and CEO Nicholas Butterworth, who cites the possibility of showing trailers of nominees for the annual MTV Music Awards.

"Personally, I think what consumers want is better-quality audio and video," says Butterworth. "They want to see full-motion video that loads quickly and looks smooth."

That just doesn't happen over narrowband, but broadband connections provide PC users with such capability, helping create more adherents for @Home cable modems. "It's really going to drive subscriptions for Excite@Home's partners," Butterworth notes. Those partners include AT & T, Cox Communications and Comcast Cable.

The MTVi deal also includes a cross-marketing component, and MTVi will sell ads for the Excite music channel.

Peter Negulescu, vice president and general manager of Excite content applications, suggests that other, similar deals are in the pipeline.

Excite@Home put new emphasis on its video content last month with the introduction of its ClickVideo section as part of Excite@Home's 2000 launch. ClickVideo is an aggregation point for video and animation content, most of it original and some of it exclusive to Excite@Home. "It really is an early example of what we're intending to do in the rich-media area," says Negulescu. "You certainly need to put rich-media content into new buckets."

Short independent features from AtomFilms, and WireBreak appear in ClickVideo, along with animation from HonkWorm, Wildbrain and the episodic WhirlGirl series, the most popular single feature of Showtime's Web site. There are music videos from and, as well as live concerts from House of Blues. Video news clips from CNN Interactive, and Bloomberg are also accessible.

"We know there are people getting broadband because they want rich-media content, so we think it's important to provide them a directory for it," says Negulescu. "The idea is to get as much rich content as we can and put it where they can experience it."

The deals with Excite@Home's content partners typically involve revenue-sharing based on traffic. But some are straight licensing deals, according to Negulescu, who expects to double the number of ClickVideo content providers over the next quarter.

It's good exposure for content providers, who can optimize the quality of their content over broadband video streams. "We're looking at how to push into new distribution channels," says Matt Hulett, chief marketing officer for AtomFilms, which makes two of the independent feature titles available for streaming on ClickCinema, within ClickVideo, each month.

One popular new wrinkle on the service: self-created content in the form of homemade videos posted on ClickVideo, which will soon provide end-to-end encoding and posting for wannabe video directors.

Road Runner, the cable modem service of Time Warner Cable and MediaOne, also has been cramming video and animation content into its fast pipes. Its cable-heavy roster of content partners includes CNN, CBS Sports-Line, Discovery Channel Online, E! Online, and Nickelodeon. But it also delivers edgier material from MaMaMedia and Pseudo Networks.

"Video is hot," says Vice President of Corporate Development Meredith Flynn-Ripley, "and we're going to see a lot more of it with interactive applications embedded."

Road Runner plans a new spin for its video content. A multicasting trial is slated for several markets later this year, according to Flynn-Ripley, who declines to indicate which markets or what will be multicast. "The content will vary, and we're still trying to formulate it."

Some of the content from Road Runner's partners is proprietary, and the business relationships are based on revenue-sharing and e-commerce-sharing, according to Flynn-Ripley. "They're very standard affiliate programming relationships that allow them to get in and find out what a broadband environment can do and allow us to get applications out to our customers."

Among the newest content partnerships for Road Runner is one with Cambridge, Mass.-based Into Networks, which provides CD-ROM games and entertainment for transactional and subscription fees. Approximately 135,000 MediaOne subscribers in New England have access to Into's PlayNow service, which offers individual two-day title rentals for $2.99 and access to one of its channels for $5.99 monthly, to three channels for $9.99.

PC users access the content from Into servers located at cable headends. Into splits the transaction fees with its cable carriers. "We are probably the sweet spot for broadband services right now," says Vice President of Marketing Bill Holding.

Into is also in a market trial with Comcast Cable subscribers in New Jersey and has a deal with Northpoint Communications to provide programming to DSL services in the San Francisco Bay area.

The other gaming player emerging quickly in the broadband space is Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Media Station, whose SelectPlay CD-ROM service is carried by Sprint nationally and on Broadwing's Zoomtown DSL service reaching 25,000 subscribers in the Cincinnati area.

Comcast has been testing SelectPlay on its Detroit system, where it's expected to segue into a commercial launch, according to Allan McLennan, Media Station senior vice president of strategic alliances. He says Media Station is also on the verge of striking a deal to distribute SelectPlay with a major MSO across all of its systems.

Media Station makes a rotating menu of 70 software titles available for a $9.95 subscription fee, with new individual titles accessible for a two-day rental of $3.95. It splits fees with cable operators and content providers.