Go On… Commit to the Revolution

You’ve heard about ABC making some of its hit shows available for free online, I trust? There has been a lot of buzz about the topic in our circles; the day ABC made its announcement, I saw several news stories, received a dozen email messages from colleagues, and participated in and overheard several discussions about it in our agency.

If you haven’t heard, here’s what’s happening: In March, the word on the street was ABC would soon start allowing downloads of free, ad-supported shows. Then, last week ABC announced it would make four of its primetime hit shows available online. Starting in May, current episodes of “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” and “Commander in Chief” will available for streaming at ABC.com, one episode at a time. In addition, the whole current season of “Alias” will be available. ABC is making all this content available with advertising inserted in the shows. It’s hinting the advertising will be “interactive,” which is intriguing.

Interestingly, though, it’s calling this an experiment. Why? Because it’s only committing to making the content available during May and June. The fact it’s not making this content available for people to download also marks it as an experiment.

The great thing about this is a major network is acknowledging the power of interactive and looking for ways to make its video content available in alternate distribution channels. I have to applaud its for taking that step.

But I also have to say what ABC is doing is less than revolutionary. I’m disappointed, because I think it’s missed a huge opportunity to set the pace for the future of content distribution.

Why?

  • Approach to delivery. ABC has chosen to make its shows available as streaming content rather than downloads. I assume this is an effort to preserve its ad-supported business model. By streaming content, ABC can better prevent people from skipping the ads. Though I fully understand the need to pay for the content, it kills portability. People would appreciate the option of taking the content with them on portable media players or saving the show to view at a later date.

  • Limited availability. Shows will be available the day after they air on TV. With the exception of “Alias,” for which the entire season will be available, users will only be able to view the current episode. Regardless of whether the networks like it, people currently access past, current, and future episodes illegally. Why not make those episodes available in an environment where the networks can maintain the quality, measure viewership, and preserve the business model? Users get what they want: more available content. And the networks get what they want, too.
  • Lack of commitment. That’s how this announcement comes across, as it only promises availability for May and June. Come on, commit to the platform and tweak the model over time if you need to. The way ABC announced this, it sounds like an “our store reserves the right to discontinue the offer at any time without notice” disclaimer.

I hope I’m underestimating ABC’s commitment to this emerging platform. There are rays of hope in the announcement. “The evolution of ABC.com is just one piece of our comprehensive, digital media multiplatform business initiative,” Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, was quoted as saying. “This announcement highlights the momentum we’ve achieved both in launching new broadband services and working with strategic partners in the digital media space, to ensure that our high-quality, informative and entertaining content is available to consumers whenever and wherever they choose” (my italics).

Pay close attention to what happens next. This is a very exciting time in our business. Whether you know it or not, we are in the midst of a revolution. Make sure you’re a participant, not a spectator.

How do you think networks should approach content distribution, now and in the future? Let me know.

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