That gap between online and traditional media? Closed.

When the Walt Disney Co. announced earlier this week it would make its new and most popular television programming available online for free, “The Wall Street Journal” called it “a move that could speed the transformation of television viewing habits.”

I beg to differ. Television viewing habits have already transformed, as has consumption of other traditional media. Earlier this year, a JupiterResearch survey found the average online user spends an equivalent amount of time surfing the Web as she does watching TV — some 14 hours per week (many do them simultaneously). Those same users spend about an hour reading magazines, two hours reading newspapers, and five hours listening to the radio.

Disney-ABC Television Group’s decision isn’t proactive, it’s reactive. The gap has closed between the Internet, consumer technology, and old media.

ABC’s new Web site (launching at month’s end) will feature a “theater” that airs free episodes of such hits as “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” the morning after their TV airdate. Play, rewind, and fast-forward functionalities are enabled but not ad-skipping. Major advertisers are on board, including Ford, Procter & Gamble, and AT&T.

In many ways, this is less an attempt to wrangle the Web than it is to stop DVRs (and iTunes) from squeezing ads out of programming. Disney will enable time-shifted content without the need for a DVR. You don’t own a box? Then watch the ads.

Expect a torrent of announcements similar to Disney’s to follow (by upfront time at least). Just yesterday, Discovery Communications said it’ll launch ad-supported content distribution channels for its content. This includes broadband video and mobile platforms for Discovery and Travel Channel programming. Time Warner, meanwhile, promised iTV is on its way to New York.

The Playing Field Is Leveling

Far more interesting, if more subtle, is another implication of Disney’s move: that television and other offline media are being employed as marketing in support of Web properties, not the other way around. That’s a big shift from only a handful of years ago, when the Web was a marketing channel that supported mainstream media.

Take magazines. Condé Nast just folded “ELLEgirl” the magazine, but lives on. To compete with, both online and off-, CondéNet relaunched That’s because print titles “Brides” and “Modern Bride” each attracted slightly over 1 percent of The Knot’s 2.1 million monthly uniques. The books’ combined print circ was under 700,000 last December. A Web site was whittling away print readers. With a wedding industry worth an annual $160 billion, that’s too much to leave on the table.

Newspapers are also experiencing the print-to-Web drain. Hard. Just take a look at the numbers The New York Times Company released yesterday. Results at McClatchy, Tribune, and Gannet are much the same. Yet again, print ad revenues are plummeting as online soars. Overall, visits to newspaper Web sites climbed 21 percent last year as paper subscriptions dropped.

Neither is radio immune. Bridge Ratings released a report yesterday in which it finds terrestrial radio penetration could drop 85 to 94 percent by 2010. Nearly a third of the respondents ages 12 to 24 cite MP3 players as the reason they’re abandoning radio.

Online Is the Competition

Even the Beatles finally caved to the pressure. No longer must online support traditional media. Increasingly, it competes, both as a product and as an ad medium. As consumers increasingly consume news, information, and programming electronically, advertisers are following. Eighty percent of advertisers use online now, a figure expected to increase to 90 percent by 2008. Online marketing is expected to increase 19 percent this year. That’s eight times TV and radio’s expected 2.4 percent rise, and six times print’s 3.3 percent.

As traditional media properties increase their presence and existing investments on the Web, so too are they upping their go-online calls to action. Innovations such as PayPal’s new mobile payment system provide further possibilities and incentives to monetize interactivity, even at the expense of the “core” product.

Device Agnosticism

Payments aren’t the only thing going mobile. So are content and programming. Your magazine’s, TV’s, or newspaper’s call to action can just as easily be “get it to go” as “go online to get it.” just introduced Mobile, a downloadable, ad-supported mobile news application. It’s one of the first free, ad-supported news offerings designed specifically for handheld devices.

The Mobile ESPN branded cell phone blazed this trail. It’s the first mobile device I’m aware of with a weekly program guide. TiVo, meanwhile, has introduced TiVoToGo. Subscribers can transfer time-shifted broadcasts to computers, laptops, or Windows mobile devices or burn them as DVDs.

And if all you want to do is get your own movies onto your iPod, the Web’s full of apps and information to help you convert existing digital video to the video iPod format.

If you don’t have movies of your own to convert? You’ve just come full circle. While waiting for Disney/ABC to launch their service on April 30th, help yourself to episodes of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” from the iTunes store for $1.99 per episode ($34.99 buys you a season pass). Those shows not your cup of tea? Then pick shows for any of the Big Three networks, Bravo, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Sci-Fi, Showtime, SOAPnet, or USA.

Old media feel so new again!

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 4-7, at the Hilton Chicago.

Rebecca is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.


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