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Free Thinking on VOC at IFC

IFC has a reputation for taking its “Independent” status seriously. Perhaps that's why it's pushing the industry envelope as it gets into VOD.

Earlier this month, the Cablevision network launched IFC Free, a high-definition VOD channel on which it will debut all IFC original series programming in advance of its premiere on linear cable.

IFC will also use Free to premiere entire series before they even appear on linear TV, banking on the fact that their tech-savvy target viewers will tune in early and spread the word in advance of the shows' linear premieres.

Like all networks, IFC faces the complex puzzle of how best to exploit content across various platforms while luring viewers to each. The solution: combining on-demand with windowing shows on the IFC Website, set to relaunch in February.

“The concept is to have IFC live on multiple platforms simultaneously and have those things not just be marketing extensions but also true revenue generators,” says Evan Shapiro, IFC's executive VP/general manager. “I feel like we have three channels under one brand.”

All 26 episodes of the network's new anime series Hell Girl will run on IFC Free in July; it likely won't premiere on linear TV until weeks later. The channel is in about 14.6 million homes through a 10-hour block of films, original documentaries and series on Comcast (about 60-100 hours), and is aiming to be in 35-40 million by year's end.

In three days on Comcast, IFC Free logged 30,000 orders, the network says, citing Rentrak research, 3,000 of which were for season-one episodes of Whitest Kids U'Know. The irreverent half-hour sketch-comedy series is on Free with extra content in advance of its Feb. 10 season-two premiere.

“This is about creating a space programmed as uniquely, carefully and deliberately as we program the linear network,” says Jennifer Caserta, executive VP of, marketing, promotions, packaging and scheduling for IFC.

A true measure of success will have to wait. Nielsen offers VOD research on demographics on a client-by-client basis (HBO is the only taker so far). While operators remain committed to VOD, the medium has not broken out on many for lack of content.

While 90% of digital cable households have VOD access (about 40.7 million homes), according to CTAM and SNL Kagan/eMarketer research, only 54% of those households have ever ordered programming.

But operators are solidly invested in broadening VOD to distinguish themselves from their satellite and telco competitors. Comcast said at the recent Consumer Electronics Show that it will boost its VOD movie roster from 1,300 to 6,000 by 2009. It also signed on last week for NORA, a new Nielsen service to measure VOD viewing.

It's no surprise Comcast is IFC Free's first distributor. Since launching Comcast OnDemand in 2003, the company has logged over 6 billion views, 300 million of them last month alone.

Comcast cites research showing that premiering programs on demand drives linear viewing. It will provide marketing support for IFC Free premieres by talking them up in an E!-hosted video show on its on-demand home page. “If we're premiering it, we make a lot of noise about it,” says Diana Kerekes, Comcast's VP of video content. “Video-on-demand is a phenomenon in driving awareness.”

Free has no signed advertisers as yet. But Shapiro says he is “in talks with major national brands” to sponsor the network with the kind of branded interstitials IFC has created for clients like Acura, Target and Red Bull on its linear network. That sort of custom-made fare for its Website has led to what he says is “high six figures” in online revenue. That may go a long way to proving just how in demand Free will be.