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Comcast plots its replay plan

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Comcast Corp. wants to wow its subscribers by offering them a video-on-demand next-day replay of the 20 highest-rated TV series in broadcast TV.

Already making weekly episodes of such CBS hits as “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Survivor” available as early as midnight following their run on CBS, Comcast signed a deal Thursday with NBC Universal that will funnel the “Law & Order” spinoffs “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent,” USA Network’s “Monk,” Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” and other series to VOD, starting in May. (NBC U owns USA and Sci Fi Channel, as well as Bravo, which will make “Celebrity Poker Showdown” available to Comcast’s VOD window.)

At the Bank of America-hosted luncheon, Steve Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast, said his programmers are negotiating with ABC and Fox to get some of their high-rated series. Burke said his ideal is to give his digital subscribers the ability to call up the top 20 series within hours of their network run for 99¢ an episode on VOD.

That goal may be hard to reach because, for example, Warner Bros. owns the rights to hit sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” not CBS, which schedules it. Warners might be reluctant to allow Comcast to put its episodes on VOD even if CBS is gung-ho about the idea.

In the NBC/Comcast deal, the network will charge 99¢ for each episode of the primetime entertainment shows. By contrast, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” will be free but will include all the 30-second commercials.

If people don’t want to pay the 99¢ but are willing to watch the VOD runs with commercials, the future of VOD could move in the direction of advertiser support, not pay-per-view.

Other points Burke made in a Q&A:

n The major studios are more interested than they were two years ago in exploring the idea of giving Comcast theatrical movies within a few months of their debut in U.S. multiplexes, maybe even before their DVDs hit the videostore. Comcast would charge its customers $24.95 for pay-per-view VOD during the exclusive window, figuring people with high-definition TV sets and elaborate home theaters would jump at the chance to call up an early release.

  • Comcast is adamant about not paying any broadcast networks to carry their owned stations on a cable system. Burke said he thinks he has the whip hand, because no broadcaster could afford to lose Comcast’s 21.5 million subscribers.

  • Burke said Chuck Dolan’s Cablevision Systems has come up with “a great idea” in its plan to offer digital-video recorders to customers directly from the head-end of the cable system, where the programming would be stored. Cable systems would not have to install new digital boxes but could use the ones already in place, at a huge cost saving.