After working with short-form video and getting comfortable with the format, the Sydney Morning Herald rolled out an ambitious plan three years ago. The publisher’s goal was to attract viewers during peak television viewing times.

While the publisher’s short-form online videos attracted daytime traffic, peaking during lunchtime, viewership lagged in the evenings and on weekends as the public sought a more leisurely experience.

Reasoning that they could retain some of those users by providing a more “leaned-back, television-like experience” through their Web site, staff created a separate channel,

The video-on-demand network first went live in 2009 with about 400 hours of content that spanned 15 different genres, from parenting and biographies to current affairs and history. The content came from various brokers, including independent filmmakers, explains Ricky Sutton, head of video.

Although Fairfax initially hoped to provide the video free of charge to viewers, the expense was too great. So when the network launched, each video featured one pre-roll ad to help cover costs.

Upon launching the channel, Fairfax immediately learned that some assumptions were incorrect:

What was popular on television didn’t work for the online channel. Comedies, serial programming, or lighter lifestyle topics received little attention. Meanwhile documentaries, current affairs, and investigative programming instantly found a healthy following.

What worked in print also did not cross over to the video audience. Food and travel — two of the more popular segments for print — were completely ignored in the online video channel in favour of more intellectual pieces.

The theory that viewers won’t stay online for longer programming also proved incorrect. Engagement levels remained high, with users routinely sitting through 15- or 20-minute videos.

Engagement levels also were high during the day, although the assumption was that viewers would not watch long-form during work hours. “If the content is safe for the workplace, if it’s something they can have on in their office while they’re working, they’ll keep it on,” Sutton says. doubled its video library in October 2010. But to pay for the additional content, it doubled the pre-roll ads to two and added two mid-roll breaks every eight minutes. Before increasing the advertising, it used social media to poll users and find out how consumers would feel about the increased advertising.

“Everyone said yes, it was worth it to be able to get the content for free,” Sutton says. “They can find any documentary on practically anything and [view it] on any device.”

Today, the Web site has more than 2,000 videos in more than 50 genres. As Fairfax continues looking at new ways to enrich the experience, Sutton says it is encouraged by the early response: “We have gained a very loyal early adopter audience.”