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Free Range TV

November 9, 2006

On Monday, Albert Cheng of the Disney-ABC Television Group gave a presentation at the FTC's Tech-ade event. In it, he outlined the network's strategy for distributing TV shows online, while still bringing in revenue. ABC needed to have online distribution of its shows, he said, because if they didn't someone else would put them up on the Net anyway. “If someone's going to be eating our lunch, it might as well be us,” he said.

The point was that consumers aren't looking to cheat companies out of revenue; they simply want to see the show with a minimum of hassle. They want to be able to record the show and watch it when they want. They don't want to have to put up with lengthy ads. They want to be able to watch shows on the various devices they own.

To that end, ABC is starting to offer shows after they've aired on iTunes for a couple of bucks; they're also letting people stream the latest episodes of the shows to their computers for free, with revenue coming from short streaming ads. This seems like a fine way to provide consumers with a show across different platforms, and is likely to cut down on the demand for pirated versions of ABC shows on YouTube.

But ABC seems to be leaving a piece missing, since Cheng indicated that the point of promoting a show across all these different platforms was to draw people back to the original broadcast. One telling diagram featured a ring of digital distribution methods–iPod, PSP, PC, mobile phones, etc.–with arrows all pointing back towards a big TV in the center. The idea was that all the different distribution methods would serve as promotions for the broadcast show.

But aren't those arrows pointing in the wrong direction? ABC's presentation was all about how they are expanding their programming into other platforms–this is what they're pushing as a competitive advantage. So why point back in towards the good old TV? Why not cut the programs free to spread on the networks connecting those new platforms? If you're willing to provide the show for free online with ad support, why not let users download that, instead of relying upon the streams?

Attaching ads to downloadable episodes would help both users and the network. Users wouldn't have to wait around for constant buffering, and would be able to move the show around on various devices. The networks would have reduced demands on their bandwidth with torrent or other perr-to-peer sharing, and the content (and revenue-generating ads) could spread farther, to users who aren't actively seeking out the show by going to iTunes or the network website. This format is something that smaller content creators are already exploiting. Sites like Revver attach ads to user-generated content bring in money to the creators.

TV producers might object that the downloaded ads could be fast-forwarded, or that the downloads might be edited to eliminate the ads, but these risks are present no matter what medium the show is distributes in. It takes even less sophistication to fast-forward on a DVR or VCR, and it's certainly possible for software to capture streaming media for editing anyway.

In other words, if TV networks are eager for a media meal that they and users can both enjoy, they should be willing to let the shows (branded with ads) run free from the corrals of their wholly owned channels and sites. It'd be cheaper, it'd increase circulation, and it'd be what consumers want.