Miércoles 27 de Septiembre de 2006, Ip nº 172

TV on the Web: Growing a second screen
TV this fall is different. It's not the new shows, the usual assortment of dramas and comedies reminiscent of the dramas and comedies that succeeded the season before.

It's not the TV sets, which for a few years now have been a confusing hodgepodge of HD, LCD, 720p and other technical terms worth sorting out only when the budget allows.

The real difference is in the schedule, which has slipped the bonds of the idiot box to try to meet viewers on their own terms and turf. For the first time, tube fans this fall will be able to keep up with most of prime time without watching or recording during prime time.

This could be a good or a bad thing, depending on the level of productivity you're trying to achieve in life, but it is definitely a new thing.

Mostly this is happening because television, exhibiting the same survival instincts wooly mammoths used to trundle away from the coming ice age, is in full migration to the Internet.

As the fall season gets under way in earnest, established shows and newcomers alike on all major networks -- everything from ABC's "Desperate Housewives" to "30 Rock" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," NBC's pair of newbies about late-night comedy shows -- can be found on iTunes or Google Video, on Yahoo Video, AOL or Amazon or, especially, on the networks' own sites.

Sometimes they might be in several of those places at once in what the networks are labeling experiments but already have the feel of becoming standard operating procedure.

"This is a really exciting time right now for television in general," says Karin Gilford, general manager of entertainment for the Web giant Yahoo. "It kind of reminds me of music about four or five years ago. Music was breaking out of the off-line, bricks-and-mortar type paradigms and moving onto the Internet. That's where TV is at now. . . . It's about that energy of, `Wow, things are shifting.'"

Missed Thursday's premiere of NBC's "The Office," a show that has been especially savvy about using the Internet to build its viewership base? No worries. It's on iTunes to download for $1.99, and on NBC.com you can see scenes that didn't make the episode's final cut.

You can also go to NBC.com or YouTube to see other "Office" extras. Especially exciting is a series of all-new mini-episodes, "The Accountants," crafted especially for the Web.

"We have two goals. One is to reach as many potential viewers as possible," says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal's president of -- here's another sign of new times -- cable entertainment, digital content and cross network strategy. "Some of them are going to watch it on air, some of them are going to be spending time on the Net.

"The second goal would be to engage the consumer as much as possible. The idea of the couch potato and the passive viewer is definitely fading. You have a much more active viewer."

Eventually, this TV safety net can't help but change behavior. There's no more need to sneak off in the restaurant and try to talk the baby-sitter through operating the TiVo when you know the "Survivor" episode you forgot to record will be on CBS.com all season long, available for only the price of watching a few ads.

TV on Web: It works

And you know it will, in all likelihood, work as a viewing experience. That may be news to folks who haven't tried video on the Internet since the days when AOL was thought to have a great business model. Now, you pretty much call up the episode and, after a short delay for it to "buffer," or start loading in the supplied video player, it starts to play, and it keeps playing all the way till the end (unless, that is, you pause it for a few moments to answer some e-mail).

This is true even on, say, this writer's mediocre home setup: a low-level broadband connection (AT&T's cheapest DSL service), a bargain-brand LCD monitor, and an older PC with no separate video card.

The picture is generally not the equal of even old-school, standard-definition, cathode-ray-tube TVs. Depending on the quality of your monitor and video processing, it can range from just watchable to not bad. But to kvetch about that is a little like complaining about there being only 30 minutes left on the parking meter at the space you just pulled into.

One more thing: TV series on the even smaller screen -- not just a computer monitor but a window within that monitor -- still work. Good stories and good actors still engage, perhaps even more so because you've had to make the extra effort to call them up at this time and place.

The genesis

Two main events kicked this repurposing of prime-time content into high gear, faster than almost anyone thought it would happen. First, last fall Apple's iTunes online media store began offering video because its iPod player began playing video.

ABC was the first major network on board, offering hits "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" for sale and proving there was a market for already-aired TV shows even before they made it to DVD. NBC soon joined iTunes, too, and the other networks began buying their own prospecting gear and booking wagons that would take them to this (possible) gold rush.

Then, in March, CBS got crazy aggressive with its online broadcasts of the early rounds of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, nicknamed March Madness. For only the price of signing up, people could call up their choice of the early-round games in the 64-team tournament, no matter which games their local CBS affiliate was showing on air.

The network even supplied a "boss button" for the mostly workday telecasts; click it and a spreadsheet suddenly took over your whole monitor. Click again, after the boss had moved on, and the game came back.

"The good news for us is nothing we've done seems to be cannibalizing television in the least bit," says Larry Kramer, CBS digital media chief. "Our theory, proved in March Madness, was that anybody who could watch the show in front of a 50-inch plasma would do it. More watched [on air] those first two weeks than any time in the last eight years."

At the same time, the network and its smattering of ads "accessed millions more viewers by giving it away on the Web," he says.

The March Madness success emboldened ABC to try an experiment of its own. Later in the spring, it put four prime-time shows up on its Web site for free viewer streaming, and even the Geena Davis-as-president drama, "Commander-in-Chief," about to be canceled as an on-air offering, found an audience there.

The offerings

This fall, ABC.com will offer up to four episodes at a time of new and returning series including "Housewives" and "Lost," plus the popular "Grey's Anatomy" and anticipated newcomer "Ugly Betty."

At CBS, the network will have episodes from 13 series up on its Web site after they show on-air, including the hits "CSI" and "Survivor" and the challenge to copy editors "Numb3rs."

All are free after the network experimented last season with charging for "Survivor" episodes, first at $1.99 each, ad-free, then at 99-cents-per, with ads; the money, it decided, wasn't in selling the episodes so much as in aggregating as many viewers as possible for advertisers, just like on regular TV.

NBC will have all its new shows up on NBC.com in the season's early weeks. Fox is showing episodes from some of its series via its local stations' Web sites, including that of WFLD-Ch. 32 in Chicago.

One caveat to viewers: This bonanza may not last all season. Like "Survivor," NBC's Aaron Sorkin drama, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," will be up all season long, but many of the announced plans for Internet replays cover only a show's first four episodes.

If, however, they draw viewers and sell ads, expect the experimenting to be extended. Right now the networks are thinking primarily about the Internet's potential to help them get their new shows sampled.

Advertiser demand

But beyond the new-season motivations, there's also recognition of a burgeoning ad base. Advertisers, various reports suggest, are snapping up any spots they can get in prime-time shows airing on the Web because the medium is new and because the viewers are thought to be especially attentive (IM-ing notwithstanding).

To Jon Winsell, director of online media strategy at ID Society, a New York City interactive marketing agency, it's all a sign that the networks are starting to understand a key rule of the Internet: "Get there first, and then figure out why, and then figure out how you're going to monetize it."

But CBS pushing its own viewing site, Innertube (at CBS.com), and NBC Universal pushing its nbbc.com are no guarantees of success in an arena that already has established players, Winsell says.

"You don't just push Amazon.com out of the way because you're Wal-Mart," he says. "NBC doesn't have that social currency that YouTube has, and you can't manufacture that stuff."

Then there's Yahoo TV (tv.yahoo.com), the most popular TV site on the Web in August, according to the ratings service ComScore Media Metrix. Even though most of its TV content is promotional material from the networks, Yahoo TV had almost 11 million unique visitors that month. CBS.com (6.1 million), NBC.com (4.9 million) and ABC.com (4.6 million) ranked fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively, although, in fairness, it was summer-rerun season.

"By Web standards, we're growing a nice business," says CBS' Kramer. "By television standards, it's very small."

When episodes of the reality series "Big Brother" were offered on the Web this summer, it drew somewhere around 2.5 million viewings, total, Kramer said -- about what one episode of a moderately popular series might draw on cable.

"Part of the issue is we're nowhere near any level of maturity here," he says. "We don't know how much the Web is going to be about time-shifting, how much it's going to be about original programming and how much it's going to be about interactive programming."

He's confident, though, the networks will continue to have the best long-form content and will do their best to follow the eyeballs.

"In the end, what it will be built around is consumer behavior," he says. "When and where do they want to see shows?"

  24/09/2006. Chicago Tribune.