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ABC affils wade into Web stream

Alphabet includes 5 in trial

ABC headed off a showdown with its local affiliates Friday by naming five to participate in a two-month trial of streaming shows like “Lost” and “Alias” on the Web.

At last month’s National Assn. of Broadcasters conference, ABC announced it would begin streaming network shows on the Internet, triggering a backlash among affils who were kept in the dark about the deal.

Last week, Hearst-Argyle CEO David Barrett lambasted ABC Networks prexy Anne Sweeney for a tough speech she gave in which she insinuated that local broadcast stations had their collective head in the sand on digital initiatives.

“We are not holding on to yesterday’s business models; we are investing aggressively in the digital future,” Barrett said.

But talks between ABC and a select group of affiliates were already taking place behind the scenes, and last week, ABC named stations owned by Belo, Hearst-Argyle Television, Cox Broadcasting and Young Broadcasting to participate by offering the downloads on their own Web sites.

The stations are WFAA Dallas; WFTV Orlando, Fla.; WISN, Milwaukee; WATE, Knoxville, Tenn.; and the Disney-owned KABC in Los Angeles.

“Having these affiliates participate in and share research from this experiment will help us to best determine a successful model for all our businesses,” said John Rouse, senior veep of affiliate relations at ABC.

During the Alphabet trial, which runs through June, episodes of network shows such as “Commander in Chief” and “Desperate Housewives” are available for download on ABC.com, as well as the sites of the five local stations selected.

The streams are free and supported by advertising that cannot be skipped. Episodes are divided into bite-sized chapters; the streams are designed to buffer while ads are being shown.

The local stations are eager to prove that they not only bring viewers to the network through the tube but also can lure Web surfers. Hearst-Argyle’s 25 TV stations drew 8.9 million unique visitors per month to their sites during the first quarter.

The hope among affils is that a significant segment of the audiences will come from local affiliate sites, encouraging ABC to cut a revenue-sharing deal with the stations.

ABC was the first net to stream network shows online and the first to cut a deal for paid downloads with Apple’s iTunes. But both those moves annoyed affils, who are accustomed to exclusivity over firstrun network shows.

ABC’s haste coincides with major efforts by CBS, NBC and Fox to create online video offerings to meet heavy demand on Madison Avenue for digital video.

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