TW exec bullish on ad-based platforms, hi-def DVDs

Despite iTunes’ much-touted success with a la carte downloads, Jeff Bewkes believes the key to television-on-demand lies elsewhere — perhaps even with a free, ad-based model.

“If someone wants to sell your shows, you take it, but it’s not where I think the future lies,” the Time Warner chief operating officer told Daily Variety.

ITunes has sold millions of downloads of TV hits since it began offering them in October. But Bewkes called the model “relatively ineffective,” because he thinks it will ultimately be impossible to condition a sufficient number of customers to pay for big network shows.

Instead, the exec said he believes a free, on-demand model based on ads is the wiser course.

Speaking from his Gotham office in Columbus Circle, Bewkes said his conglom is banking on StartOver, a TW Cable program allowing for on-demand recall at no fee that the company has been quietly piloting in Columbia, S.C.

At the moment, StartOver only allows customers to restart a program as long as it’s still on the air, on the theory that advertisers wouldn’t want their spots to run outside the designated timeslot.

But Bewkes said it could be converted to allow recall a day or two later, with time-sensitive ads adjusted accordingly.

If Google can drum up billions of dollars from ads customized to a type of user, digital cable could do the same by targeting a given user or viewing time, he said.

StartOver has been tested in about 65,000 households, with more than three-quarters of those households using it at least eight times in the three months or so it’s been available, according to a TW Cable rep.

While some of the WB shows are already offered on iTunes — and the CW eventually will sell via the service as well — Bewkes said the idea of introducing fees to a well-oiled ad machine doesn’t add up. “It would be like making Google a paid search engine,” said the exec, who as a former HBO topper knows something about both video-on-demand and premium subscriptions.

News follows Disney topper Bob Iger’s announcement earlier this week that ABC soon will make available episodes on the network’s Web site for free with ads.

Comments also echo Comcast prexy Brian Roberts’ recent public remarks to the effect that television could follow an ad model as long as spots were more targeted, a la Google, which would keep networks and viewers happy (Daily Variety, Feb. 8).

StartOver isn’t the only technology on which Bewkes is bullish. Exec expressed a lot of optimism for high-def DVDs, no matter which of the two formats the industry ultimately chooses.

“It’s not just getting people to buy a few more DVDs,” he said, but rather about “the HD-ification of TV,” in which the product greases the skids for cable and TV to move to the pricier high-def model.

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