• Starz Pursues Digital Sampling for "Pillars" Series

    You may have noticed a lot of recent promotion for Starz's current mini-series, "The Pillars of the Earth," based on the book by Ken Follett. A key part of Starz's promotional efforts for this $40 million production is "digital sampling."

    Starz has made the first 2 episodes of the 8-part series available on multiple outlets including free on demand for digital subscribers of major cable operators like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and others, totaling 61 million subscribers. They are also available on DirecTV's in-house channel 101. And they are available online for Comcast's Fancast users and also on Netflix (where I happened to notice them).

    A Starz spokesman told me that the goal of freely sharing the first 2 episodes is to entice viewers to subscribe to Starz for the first time or for those who may have previously dropped the network, to renew. Years ago premium networks like Starz, HBO and Showtime used to offer free preview nights/weekends (which they still do sometimes), but now, with subscriber behavior more focused than ever on on-demand and online usage, digital sampling has become the focus. Starz began aggressively pursuing this path 2 years ago and has used it for other original productions such as Crash, Party Down and Spartacus (which generated 1 million on-demand/online samples).

    Starz's emphasis on digital sampling is no surprise as it has embraced online distribution. In October '08, it made a distribution deal for its "Starz Play" service with Netflix, which brings its full library of content (though not in HD) to Netflix subscribers. In the case of "Pillars" this actually means that Netflix subscribers can stream all 8 episodes not just the first 2. The same goes for Starz subscribers accessing via Fancast's authentication and for Verizon FiOS users (though Verizon has chosen to charge $5.99/mo for Starz Play) plus any other future distributor offering authenticated online access.

    For "Pillars" Starz augmented its digital sampling by also offering an "amplified e-book" for iPad users in collaboration with Penguin Group, the book's publisher. In addition to the book's text, the iPad version, which sells for $12.99, includes 34 video excerpts from the mini-series, with appropriate cues to play them. There's also behind the scenes video and an outline of the character relationships. The amplified e-book approach mirrors what Vook has been doing.

    In 2011, Starz will be pursuing more digital sampling with its Spartacus prequel in January and season 2 later in the year, along with "Camelot" which will debut mid-year. Add it all up and Starz is doing an impressive job of staying aligned with the consumers' shifting behaviors toward digital consumption.

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