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As Fall Shows Debut Online, Network Execs Experiment With Web Strategies

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NEW YORK ( -- To catch this season's must-see TV, TVs appear to be optional. Indeed, every major network -- and one not so major -- are experimenting with the web as both a marketing tool and an alternative distribution channel. Ad supported or ad free, streamed on sibling websites or on partner portals, the networks are throwing every imaginable mix against the wall to see what sticks.
Variety of portals
NBC is debuting two news series -- "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock" -- on one week before their broadcast debuts. Supported with pre-roll advertising from AT&T, the new site is also carrying the beginning of four returning shows, including "My Name is Earl." NBC is also working with AOL to premiere "Twenty Good Years" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" online a week before their broadcast debuts. Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60" debuted ad free on AOL Sept. 11, and "Twenty Good Years" will be available Oct. 4. But the Peacock Network is up for dancing with anyone at this party, and went with Yahoo to premiere another new drama, "Heroes."

CBS also liked Yahoo as a partner, and will preview new series "Jericho" on the portal, and like NBC, CBS is using several web outlets. This week three shows are available on Google Video free of charge -- the pilot episodes of "Smith" and "The Class," along with the season opener of "The New Adventures of Old Christine," are available for streaming on-demand and without commercials until Sept. 17.

New network the CW went with MSN to stream "Runaway," "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Veronica Mars" early, while Fox is using its Fox Interactive sibling websites, such as MySpace and IGN, to stream the first seven minutes of the season premiere of "The Simpsons."

Teaming with TiVo
And networks aren't limiting their experimentation to portal deals, either. CBS, for instance, has teamed up with TiVo so the digital recording service's subscribers can watch the pilot episode of "The Class" a week before it airs on TV. The pilot also comes with a package of clips from CBS's other new shows -- "Jericho," "Smith" and "Shark." In addition, CBS is now offering pilot episodes of "The Class" and "Shark" aboard American Airlines as part of an "Eye on America" in-flight programming partnership. ABC, meanwhile, is giving away 1 million free downloads of last season's finales of "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" on Apple's iTunes.

Though the web is slowly evolving into a legitimate distribution channel, the networks are generally casting it as a marketing tool. "When you launch a new season, it's important that you get the shows in front of as many eyeballs as possible," Jeff Gaspin, president, NBC Universal cable entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy, said in a statement. "We've created a variety of new, engaging digital offerings to generate excitement and drive viewership to the network."

Couched as a promotional vehicle, the networks' web plays are less likely to upset their affiliates -- many of whom have already expressed dissatisfaction with online distribution.

Local ads for online offerings
To appease local stations, ABC parent the Walt Disney Co. this week reached an agreement with network affiliates to include local advertising in ABC's online offerings when the network reintroduces its free, ad-supported broadband video player later this month. Beginning Sep. 23, the network plans to stream episodes of returning series "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy," along with new shows "Six Degrees," "Ugly Betty," "The Nine" and "The Knights of Prosperity" on after they air.

National advertisers are watching these network moves closely, aware that this year's experiment could become next year's ad strategy. "These deals are on the leading edge of what's to come," said John Cate, VP-national media director at Carat Fusion. "Any agency without a solid interactive strategy in the works is out of it."
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