Free TV Comes to the Web

Last week, I discussed major improvements in online movie services such as MovieLink and CinemaNow, which are now offering—for the first time—full-length, downloadable, buy-to-own, recent Hollywood blockbusters such as King Kong and Brokeback Mountain. Prices are still a bit high, but this is a huge development. What might be even bigger, however, is the announcement this week that ABC's parent company Disney will soon be offering recent episodes of its top hit TV shows on the Web—for free. We could be witnessing the beginning of a revolution in the way we consume our favorite TV content.

Connected Home Express readers might be familiar with the notion that ABC and other networks are already offering episodes of some hit TV shows for sale through iTunes, Apple's hit online music service. But these episodes come with numerous limitations. First, the video quality is mediocre at best: Apple encodes the shows at 320 x 240 so that they'll fit on the tiny iPod screen. But when you view the shows on a TV or, heaven forbid, a high-resolution computer screen—which, incidentally, is how most people actually watch them—the low resolution is apparent in on-screen artifacts, blurriness, and blotches.

Second, because the shows are encoded with Apple's proprietary digital rights management (DRM) software, they'll work only with Apple software and iPods. This drawback limits the appeal of the shows. Third, some might be put off by the $1.99-per-episode price. Most people would probably listen to a digital song again and again, but it's unlikely that most people would want to watch a TV show more than once. Why can't these episodes simply be rented on a per-view basis, as with the on-demand services of most cable systems today?

Disney is seeking to offer consumers another option. During a two-month test that will begin next month, the company will offer free episodes of Alias, Commander in Chief, Desperate Housewives, and Lost. Viewers will be able to watch the shows one day after they air on live TV, free of charge. The catch? Commercials will be embedded in the shows, as they are on live TV, and you won't be able to fast forward through them. (However, you will be able to pause, rewind, and fast forward through the actual show content.) Disney has already signed up 10 advertisers, including Cingular, Ford, and Universal Pictures.

Another limitation that's barely been mentioned in all the hoopla surrounding Disney's announcement is that these episodes won't be downloadable: You'll have to watch them directly from Disney's Web site. This hurdle won't be a huge problem for many people, but for those hoping to catch last night's Lost while commuting to work the next day, that digital video recorder (DVR) is still going to be required equipment. And we still don't know what the quality will be like: Is Disney going to force us to squint into a tiny TV picture on a Web page? I hope not.

The Disney announcement doesn't itself end the shackles of traditional TV scheduling, in which viewers need to be in front of the boob tube at specific times to see their favorite shows, but it's the start of a trend. Combined with DVRs and the expected adoption of similar models by other networks, we could be on the cusp of a sea change in the ways in which we're entertained. Just as digital music downloads will eventually kill off the album format, this change could kill the "Thursday night must-see-TV" syndrome, in which networks stack all their most profitable shows together on one night.

For now, of course, Disney is playing it safe. The company calls this move "an additive," or an experiment in how it makes its shows available to customers. Disney execs speak of how traditional TV is a "sit back" experience whereas this new PC-based model is a "lean forward" experience. They say it won't cannibalize their existing content streams but will instead complement them.

I think Disney is right: Eventually, this initiative could provide the model for TV content moving forward. It will certainly help sell more broadband connections. Rabid fans of shows such as Lost and Desperate Housewives can never really get enough. And this capability will be a boon to people who can't be in front of the TV when those shows initially air.

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