Wary webs ready to start streaming full episodes

SYDNEY — After staunch resistance, Australia’s commercial webs are catching on to catch-up TV — full episodes delivered via online streaming.

Last month, Nine Network pacted with Microsoft to launch a service on video portal Ninemsn featuring a handful of local shows, while Seven Network looks set to wade into the online world in September.But watching with interest is pubcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corp. whose online service IView — modeled on Blighty’s BBC iPlayer and online TV service Joost — celebrated its first birthday last month.

It has been a rousing success with monthly viewing figures at over 600,000, trebling since its launch in July 2008. Some 40% of these users are regular watchers.

Arul Baskaran, acting head of multi-platform production for the ABC, says word of mouth has been the biggest driver, particularly for such shows as sketch skein “The Chaser” and a recent “Four Corners” news program about soccer players behaving badly, which hit the headlines Down Under.

Baskaran says regardless of the delivery platform the same rules of quality product apply.

“It really is all about the content,” he says. “Rather than have a disparate collection of catch-up shows we have a solid slate of 300 hours and over 100 programs and the more content you have the more compelling a proposition it is.”

By comparison Nine has just a few local skeins, Seven the odd episode of soap “Home and Away” and Ten is still using the clip highlight format to steer viewers to its main channel.

Aussie TV has been slow to move online partly out of fear — execs see the Internet as a threat to the all-important ratings figures rather than an opportunity — and partly because the industry has been protected for years by media laws. These prevented the entrance of new players and channels (even pay TV struggled in its early years) so the webs have been content to rest on their laurels and not explore new avenues.

But that is set to change.

Ninemsn topper Joe Pollard says the recent launch has an eye to more full content options and to that end it will show Nine content, such as local hit “Sea Patrol,” plus shows from other providers including MTV, Splash, National Geographic and Lonely Planet.

Nine also recently signed an agreement with Warner Bros. that will make the U.S. shows that it licenses, including sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” available online in Oz in 2010.

At Seven, program topper Tim Worner will not be drawn on a start date but he did say that most of its U.S. content will be available to be viewed when the web launches its online service.

“It has spawned a whole new commissioning process,” Baskaran says. “If something is greenlit now in Australia we have already secured streaming and catch-up rights from the outset.”

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