ABC's new gambit

ABC’s announcement, as reported in the Wall Street Journal today, that it will begin offering its prime time programs free-of-charge over the internet is another example of the leadership role they’re playing in the new media space. Does anybody really think this is just an “experiment?”

On April 30, ABC will unveil a revamped Web site that will include a “theater where people with broadband connections can watch free episodes of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and other hit shows on their computers. Episodes will be available the morning after they air and will be archived so people can eventually view a whole season.
The programs will have three, one-minute commercial breaks (sans fast-forwarding) featuring only one sponsor, and, get this, users get to choose the sponsor before viewing the program. ABC was first to offer programs for sale via iTunes, and now this.

Jeff Jarvis offers his usual excellent commentary, including this great line: “I’d sell your cable stock, by the way.” Good advice. This won’t help broadcast stocks either.

The story offers one troubling line, however, that suggests even forward-thinking ABC doesn’t totally get it.

Disney will also promote the creation of fan sites for various shows. “We want to tie all of these fan sites closer to our brand,” Mr. Cheng says.

In the words of the immortal Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” The reality is that fans don’t need the network to “promote” creative sites, and there’s something compelling about the disconnection anyway. Would the network, for example, really want to get in bed with a wonderful spoiler site like Lostpedia? If the answer is yes, then hooray for ABC. If not, then it’s really about control and the mass market.

Hats off to ABC for forcing the truth about the network/affiliate relationship to the surface. Once again, the only future local media companies have is to diversify via the internet. I don’t care how much news you produce, it won’t produce profitability in an on-demand world.

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