Networks go on blitz for Web hits

CBS, Fox, NBC adopt online syndie strategies

For 60 years, the guiding principles of network television have been twofold: mass appeal and program exclusivity. “Watch ‘Friends’ tonight at 8, only on NBC!”

The endgame was to draw as large an audience as possible to a program that could only be found at one place on the dial, at one predetermined time each week.

Come fall, three of the Big Four networks are turning those precepts inside out with the launch of ambitious online syndication services designed to distribute their top shows into cyberspace, shotgun style. Contempo net execs see it as a bold effort to piece together the mass audience of old — one Web site, one blog and one cellphone screen at a time.

With the initiatives unveiled during the past two months, net execs say they realize the need to be more aggressive in getting their shows out in front of the 80 million-100 million users who flock to such Web titans as Yahoo, MSN and AOL each month. And as online sources continue to pull ad dollars away from traditional TV, it’s an expand-or-die bid by broadcasters to grab more of the $15 billion-$17 billion in domestic online advertising spending, which is projected to balloon to $26 billion by 2011, according to Jupiter Research.

“It’s the inverse of traditional television. You no longer have the leverage of scarcity” in the online realm with pirated material freely whizzing around the world, says CBS Interactive prexy Quincy Smith, who is spearheading the CBS Audience Network initiative. “Now you have just the opposite situation. So you want to put your (shows) in as many places with different distributors who attract a slightly different audience.”

NBC Universal and News Corp. have partnered on a joint venture that was born out of a similar philosophy and effort to combat YouTube-fueled distribution of illegal copies and clips of NBC U and News Corp.-owned programs

“We believe in ubiquity distribution,” says George Kliavkoff, NBC Universal’s chief digital officer and interim head of the nascent (and still unnamed) online syndication joint venture of NBC U and News Corp. “We think that on any platform, quality always wins. We have the quality content that will aggregate an audience.”

But online syndication isn’t solely the domain of well-entrenched media concerns with big marketing budgets. Like the traditional syndie biz, there seems to be room for upstarts. Michael Eisner’s startup Vuguru production banner has gotten attention in the industry for its approach to building an audience for its original Web serial “Prom Queen” through partnership deals with MySpace and some of the other Internet distribs that are pacting with CBS, NBC U and News Corp.

The NBC-News Corp. venture will be built around a Web site offering free full-length TV series and movie downloads from the NBC, Universal and Fox libraries. More significantly, the site is designed to serve as a hub for distributing those episodes and movies to a range of other online platforms, including such rival media companies as AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft’s MSN and News Corp.’s MySpace.

Each download will have embedded advertising, meaning no matter what site the user chooses to watch an episode of “Heroes,” the same spot for toothpaste, or car insurance, et al., will roll each time. In exchange for showcasing the NBC U-News Corp. distributed shows, those partners will get a cut of that ad revenue.

Why would NBC and Fox want to share its audience-attracting products with competitors that have siphoned away some of the hours that people once spent dutifully watching television?

For one, it acknowledges that entertainment options, particularly for coveted younger viewers, are splintered among myriad media platforms — including wireless and cell phone applications — that barely existed even five years ago.

It also reflects an attempt to bridge the huge gap in rates advertisers pay per thousand viewers between old-fashioned 30-second spots on analog TV (un-sexy as that ad form may seem these days) and online blurbs. If wider distribution on the ‘Net gets those ads in front of more viewers in aggregate, online ad rates have nowhere to go but up.

“We’re planning to build a destination Web site, but we’re not going to be presumptuous,” NBC U’s Kliavkoff says. “Not everyone who might be interested in our content is going to make it to that site. We’ve pulled together a network of partners that will get us out in front of 98% of the Internet audience.”

Like CBS’ Smith, Kliavkoff maintains that the joint venture isn’t aiming to compete with YouTube and its user-generated wonders. The high-end shows to be offered through the NBC U-News Corp. hub site are in a different league. There will be some original programs produced or acquired exclusively for the joint venture site, but Kliavkoff acknowledges that the lion’s share of the juice, at least at the outset, will come from pre-existing TV series and films.

“Our real competition is going to be DVRs,” Kliavkoff says. “We’re focused on premium-quality professionally produced content that is attractive to advertisers.”

The push deeper into the online arena is also designed to generate more organic, word-of-blog promotion for network fare, particularly new programs. The wider distribution of authorized CBS, NBC and Fox content should make it one-click easy for fans to showcase their fave raves through clips posted on personal Web sites and blogs.

With the CBS Audience Network, the Eye is taking much the same approach as NBC U-News Corp. (which announced their plans about a month before the Eye) but with more distribution affiliates.

CBS is really getting into the online backwoods in striking deals with such niche, albeit well-trafficked, players as Bebo, the big U.K. social-networking site; Brightcove, which offering users video mix-and-mash-up tools; and Joost, the startup that boasts of offering broadcast-quality Internet video, in which CBS is an investor.

Smith emphasizes that CBS brass are as intrigued by how much the electronic connection of the Web will allow them to study their consumers in granular detail. Do “CSI” fans also tend to like Avril Lavigne? Do “America’s Next Top Model” viewers spend more time on fashion-oriented Web sites? The marketing and sales potential of the kind of demographic and audience profile data that can be built on the back of every download is astounding, Smith says.

Among the old-guard broadcast nets, ABC has been a pioneer in Web distribution of its programming — but in a more selective fashion. ABC and its Disney-owned sibling channels have so far concentrated their efforts on making programs available for streaming off the ABC.com and other channel Web sites, as well as through the groundbreaking download-on-demand pact the Mouse House inked with Apple’s iTunes nearly two years ago.

Social networking behemoth MySpace is in demand as a platform for Internet because of its youthful user base. In the case of “Prom Queen,” a Web mystery-serial unfolding over 80 episodes, former Disney CEO Eisner structured an innovative deal to give MySpace a 12-hour exclusive window on each 90-second episode, after which segs go wide on promqueentv.com, YouTube and plenty of other video Web sites. On MySpace, users who opted to subscribe to the show have new episodes delivered daily to their online doorstep.

New Line Cinema signed up as “Prom Queen’s” charter advertiser, pushing “Hairspray” in pre- and post-roll spots attached to every installment of the show that bowed April 1 and concludes June 20. The costs of producing the shorts were also offset for Vuguru by generous product placement.

The MySpace affiliation allowed for all sorts of promotional extras for the show, from fan forums to pages dedicated to the fictional high school characters. According to reps for Vuguru, the show has drawn more than 10 million page views so far (a number hard to verify independently given its diffuse distribution).

“Prom Queen” was a first for MySpace in terms of showcasing a TV series-esque program with higher production values than typical MySpace user-generated fare. It won’t be the last.

In that sense, the tables really have turned on old and new media. A prime showcase on MySpace has become the equivalent of landing the Thursday 8:30 p.m. time slot on the NBC of old. Except that MySpace doesn’t cough up a license fee, just the value of the foot traffic among its 180 million-plus registered users.

“We provide a very powerful distribution platform,” says Jeff Berman, MySpace’s general manager for video. “For anyone serious about finding a broad audience for their content, it’s a no-brainer to be on MySpace.”

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