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Peacock preening with iTunes presence

NBC offers 'Office,' 'Lazy' for iPods

Happy days are here again for problem-plagued NBC — at least in the world of digital downloads.

While the Peacock’s still pretty much plucked in primetime, net is having a far easier go on Apple’s iTunes musicstore.

Just a month after launching, NBC Universal programming now dominates the service, all but erasing Disney’s early advantage as the first conglom to pact with Apple.

Take “The Office,” the critically hailed Peacock laffer that’s gaining steam on the air but is not yet a primetime hit. On iTunes, it’s the smash of the season, regularly taking up half the slots on Apple’s list of top 20 TV shows for sale.

NBC’s success speaks to just how quickly things can change in the new world of downloadable TV.

“What works one week may be outdated a month from now,” said Frederick Huntsberry, who as president of NBC U Television Distribution is heading up the Peacock’s platform push.

Indeed, TV industry insiders expect a flood of deals between networks and Apple in the first half of the year.

Nets want bite of Apple

WB network supremo Garth Ancier told Daily Variety last month that he expects the Frog to make a deal with iTunes sooner rather than later, and HBO execs have also expressed interest in getting aboard (perhaps in time to help promote March’s return of “The Sopranos”).

Congloms plotting a way to launch on iTunes could do worse than emulate the example set by NBC U.

After getting over the initial shell shock of Disney’s October announcement, Peacock brass mobilized quickly to plot a counterstrike.

Execs from all levels of the company held weekly conference calls to discuss what content made sense for iTunes and how best to make a splash on the service. Within a few weeks, NBC U was ready to make its iTunes debut Dec. 5 with content from NBC, USA Network, the Sci Fi Channel and the U syndie library.

“It’s not just handled by one division,” Huntsberry said of the Peacock philosophy. “We have a management team that is working together to look at various opportunities with iTunes. From day one, it was important to work in unison.”

Timing was key. NBC U brass wanted to have their product in place in time for the Christmas buying season to capitalize on the millions of consumers who’d be getting video-enabled iPods for the holidays.

What’s more, every day that went by was one more in which Disney had a virtual monopoly on legal video downloads.

Rather than simply throw a bunch of shows online, Huntsberry said NBC U also worked with Apple to make sure the Peacock brand became a clear presence on iTunes — essentially making NBC an anchor department store of Apple’s digital mall.

As a result, consumers who visit iTunes will find NBC U programming grouped together on its own mini-homepage, with banner ads on the main iTunes page leading viewers to the Peacock’s wares. It also helps that NBC U has nearly three times as many shows on iTunes as Disney.

“In the next 12 months, our intention is to heavily increase the content you see there today,” Huntsberry said.

NBC’s online ads for iTunes already make clear content from Bravo and “Saturday Night Live” is coming shortly. “Access Hollywood” may soon be accessed through iTunes as well.

Peacock has an important advantage over rivals like ABC.

In addition to having consumer-friendly cable brands such as USA and Sci Fi, the NBC network has more liberal repurposing agreements with its affiliates, making it easier for the net to make more of its programs available for download. By contrast, ABC can currently put up on iTunes only programs repping 25% of its primetime sked.

Still, there’s little doubt the Peacock has been much more aggressive than Disney and ABC in using its own on-air resources to tout its Apple alliance.

So-called swipes — those quick graphical messages networks put at the bottom of the screen when a show returns from a commercial break — now hype iTunes as well as the latest episodes of “ER” or “Medium.”

Visitors to Universal theme parks are also bombarded with messages touting the availability of NBC shows for download.

NBC’s own Web site even directs viewers to iTunes, hyping the fact that episodes of “vintage” NBC shows like “Adam-12” are just a click away. By contrast, if there’s any mention of iTunes on ABC.com, the network’s done a good job of hiding it.

Over the holiday break, the Peacock also pioneered using iTunes as a promotional vehicle by actually giving away programming to consumers.

A half-hour Sci Fi special previewing the new season of “Battlestar Galactica” is being offered for download at no cost, weeks before the same special airs on the cabler.

‘Crazy delicious’

NBC also got the greenlight from Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video to allow free downloads of “Lazy Sunday,” a “Saturday Night Live” digital short — six words: “Mr. Pibb + Red Vines = Crazy Delicious” — that’s become a cultural phenom just a few weeks after it first aired on the latenight sketch laffer.

Both clips went online right before Christmas — and just in time for millions of new iPod users to download.

Huntsberry said NBC’s main goal is to get people to pay for content. In some cases, however, there may be greater promotional value in giving it away.

With “Lazy Sunday,” the decision to put the clip on iTunes happened organically. “We saw enormous traffic on the Internet around the sketch. College kids in particular were streaming the video in terrific numbers,” Huntsberry said.Huntsberry said the free “SNL” sketch serves as an appetizer for the expected 2006 launch of a much broader menu of “SNL” content. Likewise, the “Battlestar” teaser is meant to drive viewers to next week’s cable premiere of the show’s new season.”Ultimately, it’s about bringing these audiences to the group of people that watches the episodes of shows when they air on a network,” he said.

In that regard, it’s no wonder NBC is spending so much time pushing iTunes. The Peacock’s broadcast network is still likely to finish the season in fourth place among adults 18-49. ABC, by contrast, has a serious shot at ending up in first.

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