Having pitched NBC Universal's tent in the heart of the Consumer Electronics Show exhibition floor in Las Vegas this week, Beth Comstock is off to a running start in what will undoubtedly be an eventful year for all the digital, marketing and television advertising turf she oversees at NBC U.
The conglom's president of Integrated Media has made a number of new media bets, big and small, that will come due in the next year. I'm generally not big on "ones to watch" predictions but in this case I think Comstock qualifies.
The most high-profile bet NBC U has made is Hulu.com, the joint Internet vid venture with News Corp. that is still in beta mode but expected to be ready for primetime in the not-so-distant future. Hulu is stocked with ad supported, free web-streaming titles, from contempo NBC and Fox hits to scads of vintage product from both studios. (If you've just got to see the episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati" where Les Nessman tries to end it all by jumping off a ledge, Hulu is where you outta be.)
Feature film content so far pretty is limited, though it does include cult faves such as "Weekend at Bernie's" and "The Breakfast Club." (Some programmer is doing his or her homework.)
Unlike past studio-backed 'Net efforts, the partners aren't banking so much on making Hulu.com a destination unto itself, but rather the hub from which to syndicate free, ad-embedded content through its formidable distrib partners including MSN, AOL, Yahoo and MySpace, among others. Hulu in October garnered a $100 million equity investment from a major player in the private equity world, Providence Equity Partners.
Smaller bets include a joint venture inked with Procter & Gamble last month on a website, Petside.com, targeting pet owners and the $40 billion they spend on furry friends each year. In between deals the size of Hulu.com and Petside.com are investments NBC U is making in vid game developers and producers, Internet and mobile advertising services and other lifestyle-oriented initiatives. Comstock is working closely with the finance wizards at Peacock Equity, a $250 million investment fund that its parent GE set up earlier this year to make $3 million-$25 million investments in startups and companies with products and services that may be a good fit with NBC U's needs in the new world order.
All of this content and technology-gathering activity is done with an eye toward the other half of Comstock's job description, namely advertising sales and marketing. NBC and its competitors are no longer strictly in the business of selling 30-second spots; Comstock's charter is developing creative "customized solutions" for advertisers who want to be everywhere at once. For that, NBC U needs new-media content but it also needs proprietary technologies and R&D, something its parent company GE has preached for decades.
"We've got to constantly be vigilant, and we have to make sure that we're focused on the right areas," Comstock says. "You plant a lot of different seeds, and you know that some of them aren’t going to succeed. You have to cultivate businesses in the same way. Over the past two years we've put a lot of processes and disciplines in place to make sure that we're focusing our investments in key areas."
NBC U's approach is meant to be illustrated by the edifice the company has erected at CES. It's a 5400-square-foot, multimedia representation of the depth and breadth of the content NBC U has to offer, divided into five key sectors: entertainment, lifestyle, sports/Olympics (NBC and Microsoft on Sunday announced a deal to webcast virtually every minute of the games in Beijing this summer), news/business and international. Within the entertainment area, one of her prime growth targets is videogaming, for obvious reasons.
NBC Universal's top brass have frequently stated their goal of getting to $1 billion in revenue by 2009. Last year, the company generated nearly $700 million in digital biz, mostly from ad sales and licensing, according to Wall Street estimates. Comstock sez she expects they will hit the $1 billion mark by the end of this year.
One of Comstock's first moves after being appointed NBC's head of digital was the acquisition of femme-oriented website iVillage.com. The process of bringing iVillage into the NBC U fold has been an important learning process for Comstock and Co. A daytime TV show developed for NBC's O&O stations, "iVillage Live," has drawn miniscule ratings, but the integration of iVillage brand names and initiatives into the "Today" show has been a boon to both entities, Comstock says. Stories and lifestyle segs shown on the ayemcast can take on new life on the website and its sizable community of users, and iVillage-spawned "community challenges" (e.g. rallying users and viewers to mount a weight-loss effort) can generate segments and tune-in for "Today," and, of course, ad opportunities for both.
"I think iVillage is one example of the kind of deep consumer experiences that we can provide in areas areas where we already have a great foundation: Entertainment, women's lifestyle, health, business," Comstock says. "What we hope you'll be seeing is a series of lifestyle plays building off our existing brands....We're spending a good amount of our technology and creative resources on expanding our brand experiences."