Bill Bradford, SVP of Content Strategy, Fox Broadcasting Company
Bill Bradford's responsibilities at Fox Broadcasting include leading the broadcaster's broadband TV strategy. He recently spoke to [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow about the thinking behind that strategy, which sees Fox distributing its programming through a wide range of online venues; about the broadcaster's plans to implement new broadband TV advertising formats; about the ways in which broadband TV is changing audience expectations; about the kinds of programs that are proving most popular on the Internet; about why he thinks it is essential that the Internet TV industry learn to "speak the language of the media buyers"; and much more.
[itvt]: Let's talk a little about your background. You began your career in the military, correct? Did you ever think back then that you would end up working in the entertainment industry?
Bradford: No. It never even crossed my mind, frankly. It's funny how you just stumble into things. Back when I was in the military, I had absolutely no designs on getting into entertainment at all. And even after I left the army, I was much more of a technology and Internet guy: I started out working at a small software company. Then I worked at Oracle doing project management and technology consulting. After a stint at AOL I ended up at Yahoo, where I was VP of product management for network integration and chief product officer of the Yahoo Studio--that was Lloyd Braun's organization, and that was really where I got my entrée into the world of media and entertainment. But before that, I was strictly an Internet guy.
[itvt]: You have dual titles at Fox, correct?
Bradford: Yes. I'm SVP of content strategy and I'm also chief product officer of the Broadband Channels Group, which is a group that was recently formed within Fox Digital Media. I also have dual reporting responsibility--to Dan Fawcett, the president of Fox Digital Media, and to Peter Liguori, the chairman of Fox Broadcasting.
[itvt]: And one of your principle responsibilities is overseeing the syndication of Fox content throughout the Internet, correct?
Bradford: Yes. I'm responsible for the digital business around all our network content. That digital business includes Fox.com, of course, and all of the other Web sites we have for our network programming. And it also includes our online syndication and community development activities: I actually have a group under me that's dedicated to managing the various enthusiast communities on the Internet around our content. And, of course, I also have a team under me that's devoted to online syndication, and they're responsible for the syndication of both long-form and short-form content. Hulu, which as you know is available on sites such as AOL, Yahoo, MSN, MySpace and Comcast's Fancast, is obviously a big part of our syndication strategy. I was actually involved in the launch team for Hulu: about six weeks after I was brought in, I was assigned to be Hulu's chief product officer.
[itvt]: One of the things that's notable about Hulu--and many commentators have ascribed its rapid growth to this--is that, rather than trying to bring everyone to its site, like ABC.com has done, it has distributed its content on a wide range of third-party sites. What made you guys pursue this strategy?
Bradford: I think it's a strategy that takes into account the "physics," if you will, of the Internet. We recognize that the Internet is a dis-aggregated medium and that our end-users are all over the Internet. To try to create a destination site--basically replicating the broadcast model online--is, in my opinion, inherently limiting: it's better to embrace this new medium for the unique things that it can provide, not to pursue a strategy that simply duplicates old models. Our users are everywhere on the Internet: somebody who likes "24" doesn't necessarily go to Fox.com every day. So we want to make it easy for them to access the content they like, regardless of wherever they happen to be. We see ourselves as following a syndication strategy that embraces the Internet by servicing consumers in a way that takes into account the way people behave in this medium, and that doesn't attempt to impose an unnatural model on them--i.e. by expecting them to come to only one site for their entertainment content.
[itvt]: Now presumably one of the risks of distributing content widely online is that you can lose control over it--as end-users chop it up and redistribute it on YouTube, make mash-ups out of it, and so forth. Are you concerned about losing control over your content?
Bradford: Well, obviously we don't condone piracy of our content, but we are aware that a certain amount of loss of control over our content is something that's inevitably going to happen on the Internet. What we do, therefore, is we attempt to proactively engage the online community with our content as opposed to being defensive and trying to keep our content locked up--which we believe will in fact only serve to encourage piracy of that content. Piracy of one kind or another will always happen--so what we prefer to do is be tough on egregious instances of piracy, but embrace the fact that people want as many opportunities as possible to enjoy our content online. So we've embraced YouTube, for example, as a distribution platform and we feed it with our content--which we feel is better than keeping a tight rein on that content, as that would likely only result in the content being put up there anyway without us having any say in the process. Distributing our content on YouTube, as well as on sites like Facebook and MySpace, is part of our group's community development function. After all, those are the sites where our viewers happen to be.
[itvt]: Now, how does revenue-generation play into this strategy of wide distribution of your content that you're pursuing? Presumably, depending on the context, you're not always able to generate revenue on that content...
Bradford: Well, for us at this point, the revenue balance is more of a longer-term consideration. We're not really concerned about taking a minor revenue hit here or there as a result of not monetizing our content in every single place on the Internet in which it appears. Longer term, there are some very sensible strategies we can follow in order to monetize our off-network content more completely. It's just a matter of implementing things like overlays, embedded advertising and product integration. As consumption of our content shifts more and more to the Internet, we're going to be experimenting with a lot of different monetization strategies. But I think we've got some time before this shift has any real bottom-line impact.
[itvt]: How much time?
Bradford: It's hard to know. I wouldn't want to go out on a limb and put a specific timeframe on it, but I do know that, five years from now, the consumption mix will look different from what it is today. I just can't say what the percentages will be.
[itvt]: What would you say are the differences between the major broadcast networks' strategies in terms of the kinds of content they're making available online? NBC, for example, seems to be putting a lot of older content out there, whereas you guys don't seem to be doing that as much.
Bradford: I think there's a lot of similarity between us, inasmuch as we're all focusing primarily on putting current content out there--even though we may be using different technologies. We're also all getting the content up as soon as we can, and we're keeping it up there as long as we can. When it comes to library content, as you point out, that's where there's some divergence between our strategies right now. However, even there, I think you'll see our strategies converge over time, as the economic models become clearer. Now, one concern with making library content available online--specifically newer library content: past seasons of current shows, and so forth--is that it could cannibalize revenues from DVD sales. I don't think anybody knows what the financial impact of that will be. I think, as an industry, we're all going to be learning from our own and each other's experiences, and that as a result we're probably all going to follow fairly similar paths. Various networks are currently experimenting with various different approaches: ABC, for example, currently has several past seasons of "Lost" available online in HD, and I think they're probably getting some interesting learnings from that. We're going to be trying out some similar things in the next year as well.
[itvt]: From the point of view of presenting content to the consumer, what would you say are the most important principles for constructing an effective broadband TV offering?
Bradford: One of the most important things we've learned is that it absolutely cannot be confusing for the customer. It's got to be very easy and intuitive for them to interact with. And also the quality has to be very good: on the occasions when we have technical glitches--when people are presented with choppy videos, and so on--consumers definitely do not appreciate it. They want the same kind of quality as they're used to on traditional television. They also want our programming to be available online immediately: people are now starting to assume that if a program is on television, it is also going to be online. We work very assiduously to make sure we get it up online as soon as possible, within the network programming window. I also think clear messaging to the consumer about when programs are going up and when they're coming down is very important. We've seen people get confused and upset when we've had to apply different windowing to different shows because of different distribution deals.
[itvt]: Could you talk about some of the usage trends you're seeing for your online programming offerings?
Bradford: Sure. One interesting thing we're seeing is that there's a close correlation between the people who are regularly DVRing shows and the people who are watching them online. Another thing we're seeing is that serialized dramas tend to do better online than more episodic programming: the strongest streaming shows tend to be those that are more serialized in nature. Also, some of the research we've done shows that streaming a program is now one of the primary reasons that people come to a network Web site--the other most popular reasons are to check the schedule, to get information about shows, and to engage with the community. That's why we've developed our site navigation in such a way as to ensure that the "Watch Full Episodes" link is front and center on our sites. Visiting our sites in order to stream programs is a behavior that's been increasing significantly over the past year for sure.
[itvt]: Can you disclose the number of people who are watching programming on your site on a given day?
Bradford: I'm not at liberty to talk about numbers, but I can say that it's grown significantly over this past year and that we expect it to continue to grow.
[itvt]: Can you say what proportion of your viewership is streaming shows online, versus watching them on traditional television?
Bradford: The proportion is still relatively small, but we're definitely seeing it increasing. I believe I recently saw a Forrester study that said that they expected streaming to double this fall. I think it will be a lot more than 5% growth: it will definitely be at least in the double digits. We'll see...
[itvt]: Is there any difference between the kinds of content you release on Fox.com and your other sites and on Hulu, or is it basically the same content?
Bradford: It's the same. Philosophically, we have a mirrored vertical: if we put it up on Fox.com, we also put it up over on Hulu.
[itvt]: You're currently offering 20 full-length programs. You mentioned earlier that serialized dramas are proving popular. What other kinds of shows are proving popular?
Bradford: Yes, serialized dramas are definitely doing well--so things like "Terminator" and "Prison Break"--and last year "24" was very strong. We're also seeing strong consumption of our reality shows, like "Hell's Kitchen." Again, I believe that that is because there's a serialized element to those shows, because they're contests: if you miss an episode this week, you want to catch up online to find out who's been eliminated, and what other new developments have happened that impact the contest. So, in general, catch-up is one of the most important things that people are using online streaming for. Though there are also a lot of people now who are using it as their primary means of viewing programs. It's still a mixed bag.
[itvt]: You also offer a selection of short-form video online, correct?
Bradford: Yes. We have clips directly from our shows, as well as show recaps, behind-the-scenes footage, director takes, and exclusive Webisode content.
[itvt]: You mentioned earlier that one of the things your group is responsible for is community development. Could you talk a little more about that?
Bradford: Yes. That sees us cultivating online communities of television enthusiasts--feeding them content, working with them behind the scenes to give them sneak peaks, things like that. For example, we have Facebook communities that we have developed for many of our shows. The goal is to get the enthusiast communities excited about our shows, so that they can serve as marketing mavens for us.
[itvt]: What kinds of community/social features do you offer within your site?
Bradford: We offer standard community functionality, with things like message boards, and we also have wikis for several of our shows. We'll definitely be doing more of that kind of thing, as this kind of functionality has not only proved to be very popular--generating very robust communities around our shows--but also happens to be very SEO-friendly too, which is great. The wikis allow our users to control a significant part of our site, generate a lot of traffic on the site, and also help generate a lot of search traffic.
[itvt]: What made you want to offer wikis around your shows? Presumably there is some risk involved in giving viewers so much control over your site...
Bradford: We wanted to embrace our users. We decided that we didn't want to have just a one-way conversation with them: instead, we wanted a community around our programming that was vibrant and enthusiastic.
[itvt]: And you also allow users to rate your programming, correct?
Bradford: Yes. We have a five-star rating system, and users can also leave comments about the shows.
[itvt]: And if a user has something nasty to say about a show, do you allow that?
Bradford: We're actually very open about allowing users to say exactly how they feel about our shows. We want that kind of dialogue and feedback. We do police any content that might be fallacious, but we welcome diverse opinions about our shows on our boards.
[itvt]: So, to summarize, your community features include wikis, message boards...
Bradford: Ratings and comments. We'll probably do some additional things this next year: we're exploring a number of things right now.
[itvt]: Can you hint at what some of those things might be?
Bradford: I think for now, I'd rather not. We're still developing various diverse strategies for this.
[itvt]: Are you interested in adding user-generated video functionality and/or mash-up functionality to your site?
Bradford: We're definitely interested in the idea of allowing consumers to upload video commentaries on our shows. Video would basically be just another medium for them to give us feedback on our programming. As far as mash-ups are concerned, I'm not so sure. We do try to be proactive about being as free as possible with our content, so that it's used in a way that's legal and still under our control. We're eager to do things that consumers want, but we do have to strike a balance.
[itvt]: We recently covered a company that offers a platform that allows end-users to watch broadband TV in a social and interactive way, by adding graphics and comments to a piece of video that can then be seen and added to by their friends and other users. Are you interested in that kind of functionality?
Bradford: I'm definitely familiar with those kinds of applications and we are proactively looking into them. However, it does seem like the number of users actually doing those kinds of things right now is very, very small. But as these applications become more mainstream and easier to use, I think we'll definitely be doing things like this in the future. We're certainly watching that space closely, but right now these services are kind of clunky to use.
[itvt]: You use Move Networks' player technology. How has that been working out for you?
Bradford: We're very happy with it. They've been a great strategic partner, and they deliver a very high-quality experience that meets our consumer needs. Originally, a lot of people here were concerned that the Move platform requires the end-user to perform a software download before they can view our programming. But we've seen a very high conversion rate: requiring the end-user to download a piece of software doesn't appear to be a barrier any more.
[itvt]: What do you think of the new Adobe Media Player?
Bradford: It's also a very nice offering, and we talk to them as well. We haven't made any decision to shift over to them, but I do think they have a high-quality offering.
[itvt]: Where do you see broadband TV advertising going?
Bradford: When it comes to broadband TV advertising, I think the biggest mistake one could make would be to just apply a traditional broadcast advertising model to this new medium, and to think that that's going to provide enough scale for the big branded advertisers. As consumer behavior shifts more online--and, like I said earlier, I don't know what the exact timeframe for that is going to be--but as online consumption becomes a larger and larger part of the mix, I think it would be a huge mistake not to engage the Internet for the medium that it is. It's not a broadcast medium, it's a much more fragmented medium. Yet it allows a lot more insight into how the individual consumer is using content than do traditional broadcast or cable.
I believe that the way to close the monetization gap that's going to be caused by this shift in viewing behavior is through smart segmentation. I don't believe it will go all the way to hyper-targeting: rather, there will be smart segmentation, in order to give the advertisers better returns on their advertising campaigns. Advertisers will make integrated buys that include on-air and online: they'll buy into a show, and then target the viewers of that show online that happen to be in their desired demographic, so that the ROI on their marketing spend will be higher. That's how I think the monetization gap is going to be closed: I don't think it's going to be closed simply by introducing a broadcast load of ads online--i.e. by peppering the viewing experience with ads all over the place. I just don't think consumers are going to stand for that.
[itvt]: Now, in order to do the kind of targeting you'll need to do, presumably you're going to need some fairly sophisticated technology...
[itvt]: So what kinds of things are you learning about your online audiences as a result of implementing this technology?
Bradford: Well, one of the more interesting insights we've gained is that there are a lot of college students using our Web sites. That's not the level of detail that you would typically get--you certainly wouldn't get that out of Nielsen ratings. So that's a very interesting target demographic that would have gone unnoticed if we weren't using these online tools. We're also noticing very high affinities with various women's magazines, for example. You can start to draw all manner of interesting inferences, now that you can paint a more granular picture of your viewer community than was possible before. We'll actually have some even more interesting data in a few weeks: we're starting to examine our audience not just on an aggregate level on Fox.com, but on a show level. Once we start to compare, say, "Hell's Kitchen" to "24," we'll have a lot more precise data and a lot more interesting things to talk about.
[itvt]: Which ad formats are you currently using in association with your broadband TV programming?
Bradford: Well, we've inherited pretty much the same advertising formats as you find in our broadcast programming: so pre-, mid- and post-roll ads. We also have a companion ad that stays with you throughout your viewing experience.
However, next quarter, we're going to be exploring different types of overlay advertising, among other things.
[itvt]: Are you interested in hot-spotting ad technologies--i.e. technologies that allow end-users to click on a highlighted object within a piece of video?
Bradford: I've definitely seen those technologies--they've been around for quite a while. However, I just haven't seen it show any signs of becoming a mainstream behavior--i.e. something that consumers would use as a matter of course. I just don't see it being a primary user behavior, so it's not something we're going to put at the top of our list of priorities anytime soon.
[itvt]: Are you planning on doing any "pause-for-this-message"-type insertions?
Bradford: Yes. That's also one of the things we're planning to roll out over the next quarter. We're also seriously exploring the multiplatform ad-delivery space--meaning that we're exploring the ability for advertisers to purchase online and VOD in one buy, for example. However, we have to be somewhat cautious when it comes to technological innovation: it's possible to innovate with the technology a lot faster than the media-buying ecosystem can catch up with or even figure out, so our focus to date has been on providing value through integrated packages for our large advertisers, as opposed to coming up with all manner of neat little doodads that nobody can figure out a practical use for.
[itvt]: In general, what are media buyers looking for when they come to you?
Bradford: Well, obviously it depends on the individual buyer and their goals. However, what we are seeing a lot of them asking for is digital extensions of their on-air buy. They want us to enable their brands to live with and be associated with our high-quality content as it exists online.
[itvt]: And which formats are they most interested in? Pre-, mid- and post-rolls? Static banners? The ability to place their own promotional videos on your site? Product placements?
Bradford: We're not seeing so much interest in product placements, but we are seeing interest in all of the other formats you mentioned, especially in companion banners--both static and animated--that allow the consumer to click through to a site if interested. Those continue to be repeat-purchased by our advertisers.
But in general, if there's one thing I want to get across to your readers when it comes to advertising, it's that we in the online space need to speak the language of the media buyers, rather than coming at them with an online vernacular. There's definitely still a vocabulary gap that needs to be bridged: we're thinking long and hard about how to bridge that gap. I mean, what the heck does a "stream" mean if you're a traditional on-air buyer?
[itvt]: I was recently interviewing Move Networks' Tom Morgan, and he made exactly the same point...
Bradford: Yes. Tom and I are actually working together on this stuff. Let me give you an example of why a serious effort needs to be made to bridge this vocabulary gap: I was recently showing a group of buyers the kind of data I could provide them with on their advertising, and they were all sitting on the edge of their seats. They told me, "You're the first person who's ever bothered to talk to us about online advertising in our own language. All the other online people come in and basically say, 'You're in traditional television. You're dying. We're the new way of the world, so get out of our way.'"