TV Networks Head to the Web

Scrambling to meet the needs of their most lucrative demographic, television networks in the US are trying to skip industry middlemen like Apple's iTunes and deliver content directly to consumers. This content, which will typically be released shortly after more traditional rollouts on national television, will be free by accompanied by non-skippable advertisements, or with a fee and no ads. But since each network is doing their own thing, the content may be hard for consumers to discover and enjoy.

ABC was one of the pioneers in this space, having begun a major Web-based TV show offering early in 2006. This week, the network announced that it will be the second major US TV network to make full-length primetime shows available for free on the AOL Web portal. (CBS was the first.) The offerings will begin today, just days before the new fall season starts, with new show episodes appearing the day after they originally air.

ABC says the AOL deal is designed to provide network programming to the widest possible audience while preserving advertisers and preventing piracy. Ads will appear on the Web page that displays each show, and will include at least one "geo-targeted" local advertisement.

Meanwhile, NBC announced today its NBC Direct service, which will provide free, ad-supported TV show downloads to users beginning in October and paid TV shows, with no ads, sometime in 2008. The free versions of these files can be downloaded overnight, and consumers can subscribe to the service to ensure they don't miss any episodes. The ad-free versions of these files are quite restrictive: They can't be transferred to other PCs or devices, ads cannot be skipped over, and the show files will become unplayable after one week.

NBC infamously jumped ship from Apple's popular iTunes service earlier this month after pricing negotiations with Apple fell through. Apple publicly charged that NBC wanted to raise prices dramatically on the service, but NBC says that's a lie: It actually wanted to lower prices and bundle shows in more creative ways, but Apple refused to budge from its unified pricing model. NBC struck a deal with to deliver its content via Amazon's Unbox service instead.

Meanwhile, NBC and Fox will soon debut their Hulu service with NBC, which will stream content from both networks to PCs. (The companies were recently sued over the name of the service by Lulu, which sells user-generated content and operates a video sharing site called Lulu TV. That case is ongoing.)

The problem with all of these various ventures, of course, is that they require consumers to discover and manage a host of different content access points. While one might argue that Apple's iTunes service is anti-competitive and restrictive, it does at least allow consumers to find content via a single place, as is the case with television today; we don't access different networks via different devices. Sadly, this mess indicates that we're still at a very nascent stage in the migration from traditional content delivery to digital content delivery. Only when this content is widely and easily available to all can it truly become as universal as traditional television.

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