There was a time when Howard Stern fans could hear — but not see — a naked porn star giving a hot-oil massage on TV uncensored.
But that was before Stern began offering his work on video-on-demand Nov. 18 with new TV partner In Demand Networks. Stern has dug up never-before-viewed moments that were too raunchy for his previous TV home, E! Entertainment.
The freedom of subscription-based cable and satellite might keep Stern from testing the FCC's patience. But something else will be put to the test as Stern provides In Demand fresh product not only from his vault, but his new Sirius Satellite Radio program next year: Can Stern help redefine VOD as a home for original programming and In Demand as a leading source of that content?
"I think he can for In Demand and I think he can for video-on-demand as well," In Demand president and CEO Rob Jacobson said. "Both of us are really going to benefit from a personality of his caliber."
VOD to date consists almost entirely of rerun programming, including blockbuster films that already were in theaters and series or specials already given multiple runs on cable channels. The technology is available in 23.8 million U.S. homes, Magna Global Research said.
VOD has been booming as of late, with CBS announcing this month its intent to offer such primetime series as "Survivor" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" next year on VOD's biggest distributor, Comcast Corp., just hours after they originally air. Many more such deals are expected.
Although Stern's audience base, estimated at about 12 million, might already have heard the Sirius show, its uncensored video version will be exclusive to In Demand. Stern moves to Sirius in January, but In Demand won't begin carrying the program until March.
A monthly fee of $9.95 will cover 50 hours of library programming until April 1, when the package gets bumped up to $13.95 as his Sirius shows become available. By then, In Demand hopes viewers will be able to access 100 hours of new and old Stern programming.
More than 700 cable systems nationwide will make Howard Stern On Demand available through Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications — all of which have ownership stakes in In Demand — and Adelphia, which Comcast and Time Warner are jointly acquiring.
Even heavily edited, Stern on TV is a proven draw, averaging more than 1 million viewers each night on E!. It was the channel's highest rated program even though it aired after primetime.
"I think it would be unrealistic to think you could get more people paying for it than were previously getting it for free," Jacobson said. "But if you look at the legions of people who listen to Howard on the radio or watch Howard on E!, you're talking big numbers potentially."
"I and many others in the industry think there's going to be a lot of interest in Howard Stern on VOD," In-Stat analyst Mike Paxton said. "It's not going to be a hit in regard to how many are watching 'Lost' — we're talking about hundreds of thousands. But that would still be a hit in the VOD world."
Added Jacobson, "I don't think Howard needs to do a million buys a month for this to be meaningful moment for VOD."
Stern undoubtedly is the highest-profile talent to bypass linear channels for VOD. But original programming on VOD isn't unprecedented. More and more is being made available for free or via a la carte or subscription, from Rainbow Media's niche-oriented MagRack service to Oxygen's premiere of a new-series spinoff to its existing franchise, "Girls Behaving Badly."
An entirely new original programming service that started on Comcast VOD in November is DoD, a free supply of hip-hop-oriented content. DoD CEO Will Griffin believes being a pioneer on the platform gives his venture an edge over competitors targeting its tech-savvy target demo ages 12-34.
"If you take a network like MTV, it's not worth it to them to put their best original programming on-demand," Griffin said. "So it's smart to go in and program to their audience before they get there."
Stern is in the position to reinvent In Demand, which has been known for most of its 20-year existence as an aggregator of content for pay-per-view. The company struggled to find its place in cable's digital world given that the wrestling and boxing telecasts that once were its specialty have lost their drawing power in recent years.
In Demand has embraced change, shifting its supply of theatricals to digital distribution and launching a pair of high-definition channels. Now it wants Stern to be just the first of many VOD-only programming ventures it produces for a monthly fee, similar in format to its sports packages, like NBA League Pass.
"I think the company has never had a personality as big as Howard associated with it, so I think it's hugely key for the business," Jacobson said.
Paxton said that Stern will be a draw thanks to his built-in fan base, but In Demand would be hard-pressed to find another property like him. "I tend to be more skeptical that this could be the first in a number of new shows that will be successful on VOD," Paxton said. "Howard Stern has a good chance to succeed, but it's an isolated case."