Update: Cable Nets and Online Video Sites: Who's Winning the Online Audience?

My new favorite television show is Dexter, which tells the story of a serial killer who only preys on the bad guys. After marathon viewings of season one on video, and waiting impatiently for season two to be released, I stumbled on links on Hulu to episodes on Showtime’s site.

Branding is important for cable networks, as it helps attract advertisers and cable subscribers. Online video is new, and I’m probably a lead user, but this whole experience made me wonder: how are these rival cable sites doing when it comes to attracting audiences online?

In terms of traffic, as shown in the chart below, Showtime has been gaining on HBO in the last year. The unique visitors are, perhaps not surprisingly, lower than NBC.comw and CBS.com, but similar to the professional content aggregator sites like Hulu or Comcast’s Fancast.

However, if we look at time spent, which matters when watching video, Showtime and HBO’s sites don’t fare as well. As we can see in the chart below: the average HBO visitor is on the site for about five minutes, the average Showtime visitor for only about 20% of that. Even though their traffic is similar in terms of volume to HBO’s, Hulu has been drawing in users that stay longer, on average, since the end of last year.

These cable network sites offer features that Hulu and Fancast don’t. But, if a cable network wants to capture more attention of an online audience, how could it start?

Part of the answer might be in online video promotion through search. People like me who are on Hulu often might just look for one of these titles there, but search is used much more universally. And when using search, networks aren’t always the most obvious choice as a viewing destination.

I tried an experiment with search analytics on the titles of four shows from these networks: Dexter (Showtime), Weeds (Showtime), Entourage (HBO), and The Wire (HBO). As shown in the chart below:

  • When the search term was the title, networks were always the #1 destination site
  • When the search term was the word "watch" and the title, none of the #1 destination sites was the show’s network, and 3 were video aggregation sites
  • When "watch" and the title was the search term, the network was a top 10 destination site for only one show: Weeds

Of course, online viewing is not the only way to build a brand and a loyal audience on the web, or the only role for cable network sites. However, as more people begin to watch TV online, the question of how much to invest in bringing that audience to a specific site and encourage them to spend time there will be an important one.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching some Dexter online.

*** UPDATE***
Since this blog was originally posted, we got some feedback from Showtime that the average time visitors spent on their site seemed low. After re-running the numbers for all four sites, I found that the average time spent per person on Showtime’s site was indeed greater than originally stated, averaging about 6.3 minutes between June 2007 and June 2008. A revised chart on average time spent on each of the four sites during this period is shown below.

We appreciate all feedback on our blog and additional perspectives on the online video space.

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