Network offers new shows for free

NBC has engineered a breakthrough deal to get its fall pilots previewed on virtually every major cable and satellite system in the country.

The complete pilots for all four of the net’s newcomers — “Chuck,” “Bionic Woman,” “Journeyman” and “Life” — will be available as free video-on-demand offerings via Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cox and other major cable operators. Dish network also will make the shows available to its satellite subscribers, while DirecTV will offer its own version of the NBC preview.

“It’s unprecedented in terms of its scope and participation,” NBC U TV Networks Distribution exec VP Henry Ahn told Daily Variety.

Episodes of the frosh four will be available for about two weeks, starting Sept. 10 and leading up to NBC’s premiere week. In addition, most cable operators will also give subscribers access to a 30-minute NBC fall preview special; a two-minute trailer for the new season of “Heroes”; exclusive scenes from “The Office” and “30 Rock”; five viral videos tied to “Chuck”; and making-of featurettes for “Bionic Woman” and “Life.”

Cable operators have been begging the broadcast nets for more content to put on their on-demand platforms. They view VOD as a potential long-term revenue driver as well as their secret weapon against satellite, which doesn’t have the technological ability to offer true VOD.

Nets, however, have been slow to embrace the platform, in part out of concern of alienating affils and because they want to be compensated for their content. NBC and CBS have both been offering a limited amount of VOD programming via a couple of major providers, with viewers paying about $1 per show.

But with Internet streaming of primetime programs now the norm, the argument against VOD weakens daily.

Still, nets have the upper hand, since cable operators desperately want their content. That may be one reason NBC — which isn’t getting any cash for its fall preview programming — was able to snag a very valuable perk from the cable operator: free promo time.

Most of the big cable companies will give NBC between 250 and 350 local spots in which to promote its fall shows. “We’re getting millions and millions of dollars worth of advertising impressions,” Ahn said.

Mass rollout of NBC’s pilots via VOD comes after the net tested the concept on a limited basis. Last year, it gave Cox and Comcast subscribers a glimpse at “Friday Night Lights,” while Time Warner Cable previewed “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

With its pilots being much more widely available this year, Ahn said he doesn’t know what, if any, impact the VOD previews will have on premiere week ratings for NBC’s newcomers.

“But we believe more is better than less,” he said. “We want maximum exposure in the marketplace (and) big awareness of our shows.”

NBC’s rivals don’t necessarily agree.

Except for a few public screenings, ABC is keeping a tight lid on its pilots (even online). CBS, the CW and Fox also have no plans for VOD distribution of their pilots, though in the past, the nets have previewed their new fare online.

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