Move will save money, but annoy critics

If some network PR gurus get their way, the nation’s TV critics will soon be watching a lot less television.

Fed up by the high costs associated with sending out advance screeners of shows, broadcasters in recent months have started giving scribes the ability to evaluate programs via the Internet. It’s just an experiment now — one being pioneered by ABC — but network insiders predict that in the not-so-distant future, DVD screeners could go the way of Betamax.

While most viewers will never know the difference, the shift could have some interesting side effects, including more frequent reviews of more programs — and less reliance on reviewing new shows based just on a pilot. And with nets such as Showtime making dozens of hours of programming available online for Emmy voters, online screening could soon become the norm during awards season as well.

Of course, the networks will first have to convince some cranky critics that online viewing is an acceptable substitute for watching shows on a 42-inch plasma screen.

Take Alan Sepinwall, critic for the Star-Ledger of Newark and owner of popular TV blog What’s Alan Watching. He understands the need to save coin, but he’s not yet fully sold on the notion of checking out NBC’s new incarnation of “Knight Rider” on his MacBook.

“I have a lot of problems with going from screeners to streaming video,” he says. “For one thing, no matter how good my computer and net connection are, there’s just no comparison between watching ‘Lost’ on my big TV set and on my tiny monitor. For another, I’ve run into connection problems, browser-crashing problems, pops, skips, etc.

“DVD screeners occasionally give picture problems, but they’re vastly more consistent and reliable than any form of streaming video I’ve yet encountered.”

Perhaps, but the networks are convinced online screening is the way to go.

It can cost a network in the ballpark of $1 million per year to send out a full assortment of DVD screeners. In contrast, once startup costs are amortized, digitizing shows and posting them online costs just a fraction of that amount.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars we can save,” says Sharon Williams, the ABC senior veepee who’s helped lead the Alphabet’s digitial screener initiative.

With network budgets tighter every year, it’s hard to justify the costs of screeners. The positive environmental impact of eliminating screeners also factored into the net’s decision to move toward online screening, Williams said.

ABC began putting multiple shows online back in January and saw a big bump in sampling when it made the much-anticipated season premiere of “Lost” available to critics for online screening a couple days before DVDs arrived in the mail.

It’s currently making some shows available for online review only and is hoping to avoid sending out DVDs for its 2008-09 pilots.

CBS also recently began offering clips of shows online, and West Coast communications chief Chris Ender expects full episodes to go online within a few months (though the net plans to continue giving critics a DVD option, at least for now). NBC has also been exploring online screeners, but so far isn’t convinced enough critics want the service.

A Fox rep, meanwhile, says the net is planning to offer streaming video to critics as well as DVD screeners.

While scribes such as Sepinwall justifiably fret that online viewing isn’t the same as TV, Williams says ABC has gone to great lengths to make the viewing experience as close to broadcast as possible. What’s more, the Alphabet is looking at ways to let critics transfer episodes from their hard drives to their bigscreens.

ABC says its producers have so far supported the net’s online drive, a sentiment backed up by “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof.

“I spent a hundred days walking back and forth with a sign because I believed DVDs were going the way of the dodo and the future was all about downloads and streaming,” he says.  “It seems only natural that the same would apply to how our shows are reviewed… or even considered for awards.”

The upside for producers such as Lindelof is that online screeners make it much easier for nets to showcase their work.

“This is an incredible opportunity for us to put up episodes for which we normally wouldn’t be able to do a mass mailing,” says ABC veepee Terry Collier, who’s been working closely with Williams on the online strategy.

Indeed, in recent years, budget cuts had forced nets to limit screeners. And when coin wasn’t an issue, the tight deadlines many shows work under often meant it was impossible to get copies of shows to critics in time for review.

But it’s a lot easier to give scribes a sneak peek at a random episode of “Chuck” or “How I Met Your Mother” when you no longer have to spend a few thousand dollars duplicating DVDs, stuffing envelopes and shipping a screener via FedEx. And digitizing a show takes just a few hours, versus the few days needed to get out screeners.

Lindelof says he thinks ABC is right to lead the charge toward online, especially in a world where regular viewing seems to be headed to the Internet anyway.

“If you build it, they will come,” he says. “If the content is worth watching on your computer and that’s the only way to watch it, critics are more inclined to eventually migrate away from their plasmas and to their laptops instead.”

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