Channels embracing Web distribution

Viewers might complain that what’s on primetime TV is all too derivative these days, but that can’t be said of the networks’ Internet strategies.

All four are aggressively embracing ad-supported Web distribution, though they’re doing it in very different ways. Most network execs say they see significantly more potential for growth from streams than paid, ad-free downloads, such as those on Apple iTunes.

That’s one reason why other networks aren’t following NBC’s lead in battling Apple over download prices. They don’t think a market that small is worth the effort.

Networks’ digital execs are instead focused on aggressive, but highly divergent, strategies to distribute their shows on the Web with ads.

ABC last week took a first cautious step into syndicating its TV shows on a major Web portal — a strategy that CBS, Fox and NBC have already wholeheartedly embraced.

But it’s unlike other networks, which are following an “anywhere, anytime” strategy that sees their video spreading far and wide in many different forms, complete with the option for users to embed clips on their own blogs or social network profile pages. ABC is essentially letting AOL replicate the same video player that’s on ABC.com and affiliate websites, but with the addition of branding from the AOL portal. There’s no option to embed yet.

ABC’s digital media topper Albert Cheng says that approach lets his net control the advertising experience. “We’re focused on the economics, not just ubiquitous distribution,” he says.

That’s very different from CBS’s “interactive audience network” and the NBC-Fox joint venture Hulu.com, which are basically taking a “distribute now, figure out the economics later” approach on the premise that they can’t afford to wait to reach young auds spending more time on MySpace and MSN than watching TV.

All of those deals, however, demonstrate that the nets increasingly see advertising, and not paid downloads, as the economic model of the future online.

Peacock net demonstrated that this week when it announced it will become the first network to offer free, ad-supported downloads of its shows.

That’s no doubt a response to its fallout with Apple over pricing for iTunes downloads.

But it’s also a clear sign that if there’s a way to watch video, you can be sure that at least one of the big nets is taking advantage of it this year.

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