Josh Sapan is on a mission, and as president of Rainbow Media that mission is to make on-demand a business. But then again, that’s nothing new. He’s been at it for some time now. In the late nineties, when VOD was still nothing more than the bastard son of pay-per-view and interactive television, Sapan was out there on the parched cable landscape, pointing to the sky and preaching like Starbuck about the quenching waters of VOD. He’s still at it today. In fact, when we caught up last week Josh was on a roll. The CTAM Summit was just around the corner and he was chomping at the bit to talk on-demand and, specifically, his suite of VOD networks, Mag Rack. (This made for an interesting conversation, because anyone who has ever spoken with Josh for any length will tell you, he is truly one of cable’s great non-linear thinkers. A question about topic A can lead you to topic B, by way of topics C, D, E and, quite possibly, F. And at that point, all you can do is fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride.) What I find interesting about Josh’s theory of on-demand is that it will be driven, not by technology, not by re-purposed content, and not even by broad interests. Rather, in his view, on-demand will emerge as a business by exploiting "extremely discrete areas of interest." He explained: "Our view is that VOD goes beyond the ability to time-shift material created for linear channels. Server capacity is making it possible for us to create new brands and new programming that is developed, branded and organized within the ‘unique logic’ that on-demand makes possible." Josh draws parallels between VOD and the Internet, saying that in the early days what most companies did was drop a .com after their name. It wasn’t until eBay, Amazon and Mapquest that the Web was, in his words, "electrified." Those companies created "not just improvements in facility, but completely new experiences." But while the VOD tipping point is down the road, Sapan remains focused on developing content and something even more fundamental. "The first thing we need is increased access," he said, "10 to 12 million homes is still a fairly limited universe." The second hurdle standing between VOD and unmitigated success is what Sapan calls habituation. "If you look at the data, 25% of the people who have on-demand don’t know it, and 25% don’t know how to describe it." Josh also feels that, as much as his generation grew up on television, it will take young people to drive the "accelerating effect" of on-demand. "If you watch how people use a remote control, 8- to 10-year-olds have little trouble navigating a menu. For them, a menu behind a menu is a counter-intuitive thing." Does that then mean it would make sense to write off older people when it comes to programming VOD? "’Write off’ is a bit extreme perhaps, but if you look at our newest content, it is certainly targeted to a younger audience." We talked about other things as well, such as our common amazement over the success of Netflix, a business very similar to his own. ("Considering the fact that, in a digital age, it is distributed entirely by mail, its success not only amazes me, it blows my mind.") Speaking of minds, want a crash course on VOD from one of the great minds in cable? Buttonhole Josh Sapan this week in Boston. Ask him to describe "extremely discrete areas of interest." Then step back and hold on. I’m warning you; he’s on a mission. M.C. Antil can be reached at m.c.antil@att.net.

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