NBC, Mouse near to uploading TV pact

NBC Universal and Touchstone Television are closing in on a potentially groundbreaking deal to put episodes of “Scrubs” on Apple’s iTunes.

Pact would mark the first time a network and studio from different congloms have gotten together to make a series available for online purchase.

If all goes according to plan, viewers will be able to go to the NBC section of iTunes later this month and download episodes from the current season of the Touchstone-produced comedy.

Until now, digital downloads from broadcasters have been limited to shows that are at least partially produced by their corporate cousins. For example, all of ABC’s offerings (“Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” etc.) come from Disney-owned Touchstone, while the Peacock’s iTunes programming (“The Office,” “Law & Order”) hails from NBC Universal Television Studio.

Holding up a cross-conglom iTunes deal: Figuring out just who should reap the financial benefits of selling shows online.

Studios usually keep all profits from backend sources such as syndication pacts, DVDs or digital downloads. But networks like NBC also generally retain exclusive rights to episodes for several months after they first air, meaning a studio like Touchstone can’t sell them online without getting the net’s permission.

In the case of NBC U and Touchstone, the two companies have agreed to a one-off deal that calls for a 50-50 split of all profits generated by iTunes sales of season-five episodes of “Scrubs.”

If episodes from earlier seasons are sold on iTunes, Touchstone keeps 100% of the profit. Studio also keeps all proceeds from “Scrubs” sales after Aug. 31, when NBC’s hold on season five expires.

People familiar with the pact say NBC U and Touchstone haven’t agreed to make the “Scrubs” situation a hard and fast template for future agreements. That said, the fact that the two sides were able to reach any deal at all means there’s hope more such pacts can be arranged.

Helping facilitate a deal for “Scrubs” is the fact that Touchstone has already sold the skein into syndication, ensuring an iTunes deal won’t impact the skein’s long-term profitability. It also helps that Disney and NBC have both been early adopters of iTunes and digital downloads, each demonstrating a willingness to experiment with various technologies and business models — at least if it’s done on a short-term basis.

“We’re all trying to examine what works,” said one person familiar with the NBC-Touchstone deal. “It’s all an experiment. We’re trying to find out if any of these businesses are even businesses.”

So far, there’s no word on whether other congloms are talking to each other about iTunes deals. Industry observers most often point to 20th Century Fox TV-produced “My Name Is Earl” (which airs on NBC) and NBC U-produced “House” (which airs on Fox) as two skeins that seem particularly ripe for potential iTunes sale.

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