• Watch Seth Arenstein’s video interview with Dan Ronayne about Rainbow’s new skools franchise — click here.

• Listen to Seth’s exclusive interviews with lifeskool instructor John Lithgow – click here to download the podcast — and with sportskool instructor Bode Miller – click here to download Seth’s podcast with Miller.


Is nothing sacred? Isn’t television entitled to be the cultural wasteland that sprouts a nightly bumper crop of American couch potatoes?

Perhaps that’s true for linear television, Rainbow Media’s Dan Ronayne admits, but he sees video on demand differently. For Ronanye, VOD, done correctly, can do more than entertain — it can teach and inspire viewers, providing insight on how to ski or play a musical instrument. And Ronayne believes a VOD school, or "skool" in Rainbow’s "kool" spelling, can generate revenue for cable operators and Rainbow through advertising.

That’s why Rainbow will announce on Feb. 19 an expansion of its free VOD services by introducing lifeskool. Intended to be the mother ship of what will become a large skool franchise, lifeskool will be stuffed full of "courses" to help viewers improve their lives. Rainbow plans to open lifeskool’s doors with original content March 29, available for the first time in HD. Also for the first time, Rainbow will be seeking sponsors for its VOD selections. As of March 29, Mag Rack, Rainbow’s early foray into VOD, will disappear, although some of its shows will reappear in lifeskool, albeit with substantive changes. Mag Rack was launched in September 2001 and is available in 11 million homes.

In addition, Ronayne and Rainbow are announcing the first of what they believe will be many lifeskool offspring: a VOD conservatory appropriately called musicskool. Also offered in HD, musicskool was conceived from Mag Rack’s popular guitar instruction offering. It will provide VOD viewers instruction in guitar, piano, drums and bass beginning in the fourth quarter of this year. Instruction will target beginners to advanced players and include a broadband website offering downloadable music tablature. Once viewers master those instruments (and even if they don’t), they can commit their music to the ages by availing themselves of a musicskool course on home recording.

Growing Skools is Key

For Rainbow, the birth of musicskool is significant because it illustrates the myriad possibilities for augmenting the skool franchise. Why stop at piano, guitar, bass and drums? Why not include other instruments in subsequent VOD presentations? Indeed, since the skool concept revolves around programs designed to improve people’s lives, the directions Rainbow could take with VOD skools seem limitless. In that sense, the Feb. 19 announcements are more significant in what they promise for the future than in the more immediate outcome, which is the launch of lifeskool and musicskool.

"We hope that in the coming 24 to 36 months we will have an entire portfolio of fill-in-the-blank skool products," Rainbow Media Ventures president Andrea Greenberg says. Rainbow intends lifeskool to be an incubator or test bed for other skools, giving programs a chance to succeed in lifeskool before they break off to form separate skools.

In addition to areas with appeal for young demos, like instruction in video games and extreme sports, Ronayne and Greenberg are eyeing skool content for older people, like financial preparation for those just about to retire. Physical fitness for seniors is another area under investigation, they say. "These are small niches, but that’s what we do," Ronayne says, encapsulating the Long Tail theory of Wired editor Chris Anderson. In fact, the skool franchise is designed for several demos, as shown by the 10-second intro reels that will play before every show. One is a macro-brand piece, another appeals to a young female demo, a third targets families. All exhort viewers to "jump-start your life."

Skool for Sports, Too

Beyond the music and lifestyle offerings of Rainbow’s VOD college (or is that kollege?), Ronayne hasn’t abandoned one of the most important aspects of academic life — sports. That’s why sportskool, with some modifications and additions, will continue offering instruction in the finer points of baseball, skateboarding, ice hockey, soccer and other athletic endeavors. The 3-year-old sportskool is near ubiquitous in VOD metrics, being available in 23-plus million on-demand households, Greenberg says. "It’s the most widely distributed, exclusive VOD network on the planet…it’s one of our successes," says Ronayne, the skools franchise’s EVP and general manager. It will be offered in HD and its look, particularly its on-screen menu, will be similar to the other skools.

While it might be true that those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym, Ronayne doesn’t allow that at sportskool. "What you need to succeed in sports…are credibility and authority," Ronayne believes. That thinking is embodied by the sportskool talent roster Ronayne has assembled, including Olympics medal-winning skier Bode Miller; basketball’s Bill Walton; Mia Hamm, arguably the world’s most famous female athlete; and Anna Kournikova, the world’s most famous athletic female.

An Engaged, Measurable Audience for Advertisers

Rainbow plans to take the academic analogy only so far. Schools, at least public schools, generally are not profit makers. The skool franchise intends to be different. Ronayne and Greenberg believe they can earn revenue in a traditional way. "There will be advertising, affiliate support and ancillary revenue," Greenberg says, although the immediate opportunities are in advertising and sponsorship.

The advertising plan calls for one sponsor per program, Ronayne says, resulting in an "uncluttered environment." In addition, skool viewers "are an audience that typically self-identifies with the subject they’re watching because it’s an important part of their life." And because it’s VOD, it’s also "an extremely, extremely measurable" audience, Greenberg adds.

In the next two years dynamic ad insertion will "roll out across the cable footprint, and that’s going to be a game changer. It will drive ad sales and sponsorship," Ronayne says.

The relatively small number of cable subs with VOD capability (see chart below) and the newness of VOD advertising make Rainbow a pioneer in its skool push. The ad community insists on large numbers to mount national campaigns, says Brian Wieser, SVP of media services firm Magna Global. He also notes VOD’s myriad reporting and consistency problems, although he thinks cable could solve those hurdles.

Commerce and Multiple Platform Plans

Ancillary revenue could come from commerce on the Web. For example, as part of a musicskool course, students, for a fee, could download additional background tracks over which they could play solos. (Mag Rack’s GuitarExpress already offers downloadable tracks as well as an online store. A site for lifeskool will launch with the VOD debut March 29.) Eventually there could also be subscription packages for additional Web and on-demand content, Greenberg says.

Rainbow has multiple platform plans for the skool franchise, including providing content to cable operators’ broadband platforms. It could be a huge opportunity, particularly since a number of topics are youth skewing, like skateboarding and video gaming. Then there’s community building and user-generated content — how about having musicskool viewers create tracks to put behind Mike V. skateboarding? Yet the overarching philosophy, Greenberg says, is for non-television distribution to "push back" users to the VOD brand.

Boon to Operators

Speaking of pushing, it’s planned that skool will push subs to digital cable. Tennis great Martina Navratilova, who’s created a lifeskool series based on her fitness book, Shape Your Self, has agreed to make appearances for lifeskool. That should help brand awareness, but "will also be an opportunity for cable operators, since Martina will be calling attention to VOD," Ronayne says.

And operators are excited about the skools. "I see any original content for the VOD platform as a differentiator for cable," says Insight VP Melani Griffith. Another plus is simple. "People will know what to expect at musicskool. It wasn’t as evident what you would find at something called Mag Rack," she says, although she adds Mag Rack is the third-most-visited category on Insight’s free tier.

But returning to what we asked at the top, does the skool franchise mean that viewers will no longer see TV, or at least VOD, as a chance to simply relax and be entertained? No, Greenberg assures us. A new show at lifeskool, Bikini Chef, offers tips on making flavorful meals that flatter the waistline. "Even though chef Susan Irby doesn’t cook in a bikini, it’s an entertaining show," Greenberg says. "It’s lean-forward and lean-backward cooking."

Selecting Your Skool

Franchise: lifeskool
Start Date: March 29, 2007
Programming: Initially in 12 categories: kids & family; music*; cooking; fitness; cars & bikes; science & nature; house & home; relationships; money; pets; video gaming; and yoga & wellness.
Select New Series: Shape Your Self, hosted/created by Martina Navratilova; The Cars You Want, hosted by N.Y. Times automotive writer Ezra Dyer; Next Level, hosted by video game expert Jonathan Drubner; Bikini Chef, hosted by Susan Irby.
Refresh Rate: 100% monthly

Franchise: sportskool
Start Date: January 2004
Programming: Initially in 10 categories: soccer; skiing; skateboarding; BMX; hockey; basketball; tennis; baseball; football; and snowboarding.
Key Talent: Tony Gwynn, Nomar Garciaparra, Dontrelle Willis (baseball); Grant Hill and Bill Walton (basketball); Mia Hamm (soccer); Bode Miller (skiing); Mike Vallely (skateboarding); Brad Gilbert and Anna Kournikova (tennis).
Refresh Rate: 50% monthly

Franchise: musicskool
Start Date: Q4 2007
Programming: Initially in 3 categories: guitar; bass, drums, piano; and home recording.
Key Talent: Luther Dickinson (guitar); other talent TBD.
Refresh Rate: 100% monthly

*The music category leaves lifeskool when musicskool launches in Q4.

Source: Rainbow Media Ventures

John Lithgow and Bode Miller — Skool’s Not So Unlikely Pair

At first glance, it would seem you couldn’t find a more unmatched set than the veteran actor and the freewheeling Olympics skier. But after a chat with the two "skool" instructors, the gap between them narrows.

While the popular press seems more fascinated with how Miller gets down than how he gets down hills, the 29-year-old skier is supremely serious when talk turns to teaching skiing on sportskool. "I’ve been a tennis instructor, my family owns a tennis academy, so I have a different perspective on teaching," he says. "You have to realize different people learn in different ways." Allowing people to learn at their own pace is one of the reasons he believes sportskool works.

And you can be assured his VOD course is genuine Miller time. The series is "basically the same way I’d teach a beginner," but there is also plenty of material targeted to the most advanced skiers, too, Miller assures us.

Teaching is also a topic of importance for Lithgow. "Parenting and teaching are the two hardest jobs," he says. The actor’s experiences as a kid and with his children are the foundation for the 20 activity-filled VOD episodes of Paloozaville, which moves from Mag Rack to lifeskool next month. The VOD series is based on two Paloozaville books Lithgow wrote and which contain more than 150 activities for kids. The actor, also the Mayor of Paloozaville, says plans are afoot for more episodes. With so many activities in the books, "we have a lot to choose from." 

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