2006-07 primetime preview

Broadcast networks are experimenting with many facets of digital-media distribution as they try to fit into the new world of broadband Internet and wireless devices.

When Beth Comstock assumed her post as president of digital media and market development at NBC Universal, she arrived with preconceptions about new programming platforms.

"You're not going to go home at night and curl up on your sofa with your cell phone and watch a 22-minute program," Comstock admitted to having thought in a July speech she delivered as part of NBC's Television Critics Assn. press tour presentation.

Then she took a gander at NBC Uni research that had observed average Americans in their homes, navigating the growing array of options for video. It turns out that 68% of households that owned Apple's popular iPod -- perfect for viewing shows on the go -- were using the device inside their homes. "It wasn't to commute with or get on the plane with," Comstock noted.

Moral of the story: Make no assumptions about new-media consumption. That's a crucial lesson for the broadcast TV business as it approaches the 2006-07 season with drastically different concerns than those it had before the 2005-06 campaign. Don't worry as much about what's on at, say, 9:30 p.m. Tuesday; figuring out where a mass medium fits into the bewildering new world of broadband Internet and wireless devices is becoming a bigger concern.

"We're trying to understand how we can participate in that and how that could be a revenue stream for us in addition," ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson says.

No one can say that broadcasters haven't risen to the challenge: ABC, CBS, NBC and, to a lesser extent, Fox and the CW are experimenting with nearly every facet of digital-media distribution. ABC fired the first shot in October by signing a watershed deal with Apple to put hits including "Lost" on iTunes. CBS followed with deals to put its programs on Google and Comcast's video-on-demand service. NBC didn't make any type of deal when copyright-infringing clips from "Saturday Night Live" exploded on YouTube, but then the peacock turned around and struck an agreement with that viral-video site to harness its promotional power.

With broadcast's single revenue stream -- advertising -- experiencing serious erosion at the hands of online giants, those are only a few ways in which networks are extending their brands to new media. It's going to take a lot of trial and error, according to CBS Digital Media president Larry Kramer.

"We're in kind of beta-test mode in this world," he says. "The good news in the first year is that it doesn't negatively impact our business."

At its most basic level, the question regarding broadcast's place in digital media is: Are new platforms additive to the broadcast experience, or is it a zero-sum game by which viewing elsewhere detracts from Nielsen ratings? To hear broadcasters tell it, the array of video-market entrants has not cannibalized their business but rather provided more opportunities to promote or distribute themselves.

"In fact, a lot of the research we're doing shows that, clearly, more people are spending time with television," Comstock says. "They may be doing other things, but that pie is growing -- and the basis is incremental, which is exciting to us."

Kramer agrees. "Given the chance to watch anything in front of a 50-inch flat screen versus another alternative, (viewers) are going to want the flat screen," he says.

With the emergence of video alternatives to the living-room television, though, broadcasters are covering their tracks. Many top-rated series are available on iTunes or VOD after their primetime windows or even before airing, for promotional purposes, on portals like Yahoo!

ABC might have conducted the boldest post-primetime experiment to date during the latter part of last season by offering hits including "Desperate Housewives" for viewing anytime on ABC.com. The trial streaming service was free through June but carried custom commercials through which viewers could not fast-forward -- an interesting alternative during the TiVo era.

ABC has not ruled out attempting another such an arrangement, but this fall the network is placing more emphasis on extending the viewing relationship beyond the broadcast window. "Lost" was considered the template last season, spawning online content offerings that deepened the mythology of the drama series, and ABC plans to follow up with a "Lost"-branded video game and a mobisode spinoff through Verizon Wireless' V Cast service.

Ahead of the upcoming season, broadcasters began to hatch digital-media extensions during the development phase. New series including the CBS drama "Jericho" will launch with online-only story lines, and even news programs are set to go multiplatform, with CBS' "60 Minutes" spawning a Yahoo!-hosted companion Web site and the "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" reconfiguring its 6:30 p.m. broadcast with offerings throughout the day.

NBC has become more aggressive in online extensions through its TV 360 strategy. Supplemental content is being created for series including the new shows "Friday Night Lights," "Heroes" and "30 Rock," as well as returning favorites "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" and "The Office," the latter of which offered webisodes this summer to tide fans over until the fall.

With a target audience on the younger side of the adults 18-49 demographic, new broadcaster the CW also is getting active in this area. In keeping with the craze for user-generated Web content, the network has created the CW Lab, an online destination where viewers are given clips from the CW programs and tools to transform them -- along with homemade video or music -- into promos that could receive airtime.

"Our audience has grown up with both traditional and new media, so we want to make the CW as interactive as possible," CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff says.

Don't be surprised if digital platforms come to the rescue of the new season's biggest programming trend: serialized dramas, which have frustrated fans in the past as weak ratings have triggered cancellations and pulled series off the air before their suspenseful story lines are settled.

"I think it would be great if certain things could be extended and ended and wrapped up, if you will, outside of the broadcast window, which financially is just impossible," McPherson says.

Broadcasters also are launching their own broadband channels. In May, CBS debuted Innertube, which mixes repurposed programs with exclusive original fare. In some cases, original broadband programming is a companion to on-air series, as was an Innertube summer reality show that allowed interns on the set of the CBS soap opera

"As the World Turns" to compete for a guest spot on the show. NBC's broadband channel DotComedy.com, which is in the works, will provide a venue for the network's classic comedy programming, including "SNL" and "Last Comic Standing."

Broadband pipelines are pumping up broadcasters' new shows through online brands like NBCFirstLook.com, which is set to premiere as many as four episodes of each of the network's debuting series in their entirety. Advance peeks at the NBC freshmen "Kidnapped" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" also are available through a DVD promotion with Netflix.

NBC already has begun to blur the lines between on-air and online original programming with its pickup of the comedy "Nobody's Watching," from "Scrubs" executive producer Bill Lawrence. After being passed over in development, the series reappeared mysteriously on YouTube; the ensuing attention led NBC to reconsider its decision, and "Watching" will reemerge through original webisodes before joining the network's lineup midseason.

Community also is a component of broadcasters' online promotional strategies and was a prime motivator in NBC Uni's acquisition of the female-targeted site iVillage. "A big, core piece of NBC's television audience is women, so we're really interested in how we can take our content and infuse that community," Comstock says.

Fox is parlaying the power of community through its 2005 acquisition MySpace, which will help spread the word about its new series. For the most part, though, the network is stepping back from the digital-media craze.

"Being first is not what's important," says Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting Co. "Being the most creative is what's important for us because once you have great content, all the other distribution platforms come into play."

Another growth area beginning to be tapped is wireless phones with video capability. Among other such deals, CBS has partnered with Verizon Wireless and Amp'd Mobile and is launching subscription services across multiple cell-phone platform carriers. If the "third screen" takes off in the U.S. as it has in Europe and Asia, it could change the way television is consumed.

"The cell phone is really more than just another outlet," CBS Digital Media vp wireless Cyriac Roeding says. "You can't just say, 'This is a small TV screen.'"

For as much progress as broadcasters have made in digital media, though, obstacles remain. Early on, the networks' affiliate bodies were up in arms about receiving compensation, fearing that much of the digital-space activity would weaken their ratings. Networks including CBS and Fox have responded with broad deals that foster more cooperation with affiliated stations, but other parties still have their hands out, asking what's in it for them.

"At this point, with respect to some studios and with respect to some talent and certainly the guilds, that is somewhat of an impediment," says Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group. "But I feel very optimistic that over the next few months, we're going to come to some understanding."

Marketers also are among those only beginning to understand how they can participate in new platforms.

"Advertisers are learning how to use this medium, too," Kramer says. "They're not sure how efficient it is and how much it works and how to reach the audience right, so it's the very, very early stages."

It is so early in the digital-media game that what broadcasters learn now will not necessarily help them in the future, given how rapidly technology changes.

"We could learn everything there is to know about how the consumer is behaving today, and that will matter for just a few weeks," Kramer says. "Six weeks from now, they're going to be behaving differently because there's going to be something else out there."