Comcast, net launch VOD experiment

In what could be a sign of things to come, Fox Broadcasting and Comcast are testing the video-on-demand waters, teaming for a VOD experiment tied to the net’s frosh drama “Prison Break.”

Move marks the first time one of the major broadcast nets has made content available to Comcast for its VOD service.

For the past week, the 8 million or so Comcast digital subscribers with access to the cabler’s free package of VOD offerings have been able to call up a pair of original programs designed to hype tonight’s return of “Prison Break” to the Fox schedule after a baseball-mandated hiatus.

The centerpiece is a 30-minute catch-up special dubbed “Behind the Walls,” which offers scenes from “Prison Break’s” early episodes and interviews with producers and thesps. There’s also a four-minute interview seg featuring a pair of stars from the show.

Both segments are culled from an hourlong special Fox put together for broadcast by its affiliates and carriage on DirecTV. That special has been running at various times across the country in the run-up to tonight’s “Prison Break” relaunch. And Sunday, cabler FX was slated to air a “Prison Break” marathon.

Comcast no doubt would have jumped at the chance to offer subscribers full episodes of “Prison Break,” as HBO makes available full seasons of “Deadwood” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in the weeks before those shows return for new seasons.

But Comcast has made it clear it wants most of its VOD content to be available at no extra charge to subscribers. Broadcast nets, by contrast, have generally said they’re interested in VOD only if they get paid for their product.

There’s also a host of affiliate and guild issues the nets are trying to figure out as they ponder the idea of VOD. That Fox and Comcast were able to strike any sort of deal is significant, however, since it could be a trial balloon that leads to bolder VOD plays.

Disney’s decision to make episodes of skeins from ABC and Disney Channel available for download on Apple’s iTunes Music Store also underscores the rapidly evolving network business model.

Fox and Comcast are taking a low-key approach to the “Prison Break” partnership, opting against any grand press releases and even declining to put execs on the phone to discuss the deal.

A Fox spokesman emphasized that the net’s main goal with the Comcast agreement was to help hype “Prison Break,” which has been off the air for three weeks.

“It’s an out-of-the-box marketing effort at a time when our entertainment programming has been preempted for the baseball playoffs,” the spokesman said. “It’s an opportunity to shake the trees and create buzz.”

Fox made a limited foray into VOD a few years ago, when it conducted a brief trial with Cablevision that made episodes of shows like “24” available for free. Test was limited to just a couple of markets.

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