TV networks struggle with Internet role

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For the big 4 TV networks, figuring out how to use the Web is still a challenge.

It's been nearly two years since CBS became the first of the four to open a Web site. Since then, the networks' online strategies have differed considerably.

"Unlike some of the other networks, we're building a business online," said Marty Yudkovitz, NBC's president of interactive media.

Of the four TV networks, only NBC considers the Web this way. For the other three networks--CBS, ABC and Fox--the Web is still very much a promotional tool for what's on TV.

CONTENT CRITICAL

The key to making NBC's various online efforts a business, Mr. Yudkovitz said, is compelling content.

And content, Mr. Yudkovitz said, is something NBC knows about.

NBC's drive has meant an alliance with Microsoft Corp. for the MSNBC cable channel and Web site (http://www.msnbc.com) as well as Web sites for CNBC, NBC Europe and for local weather. The main NBC site (http://www.nbc.com) acts as a marketing tool for the network's programs.

Microsoft is likely to be the first of a number of partnerships NBC will make in the online arena, Mr. Yudkovitz predicted. For example, NBC is looking to start a major sports site to challenge the ESPN/Starwave Corp. juggernaut, ESPNET SportsZone.

DESKTOP NICHE

Besides its consumer interest, NBC believes there is also a business in office-based online services, a niche its NBC Desktop fills.

At CBS, the cyber-strategy is not as well-developed. That's partly because new owner Westing-house Electric Corp. has had other priorities, such as airing better shows and getting the network into cable TV.

Thus far, CBS is concentrating on using its Web site for promotional purposes. It also is branching out into news coverage with the recently rebranded CBS News site, which is focusing on the 1996 presidential election.

At ABC, the network's Web sites serve a similar promotional purpose. For example there's a site for "Monday Night Football" as well as the network.

CONNECTED TO AOL

ABC has a site on America Online as well. Sister cable operation ESPN has one of the most successful sites, traffic-wise.

"But we're still waiting to make money," said one ABC executive. The company is hoping subscriber fees will help.

Fox has its FoxWorld site, which features the high-traffic "X-Files" pages, but insiders said the company is looking for the right partner to make its mark in cyberspace.

A deal with MCI Corp. fell through earlier this year, and talks continue with Starwave Corp. and SportsLine USA.

SMALL INVESTMENT

With the exception of NBC, the networks are expending little effort to get advertising on their sites. ABC Exec VP-Marketing Alan Cohen said the network will pursue more ad programs that integrate the network and the Web site, a philosophy long espoused by CBS.

"We've found [the Web site] to be an excellent added-value vehicle for a number of our advertisers," said George Schweitzer, exec VP-marketing for CBS Television. "We're evaluating where to take our interest in the online world."

One type of program CBS is considering is a joint sales program with another site.

Even NBC admits that the Web is in its infancy when it comes to generating ad revenue for the network.

HIGHLY TARGETED

"We need to transform the old paradigm to something new. We will eventually have the ability to do highly targeted messaging for advertisers," said Edmond Sanctis, NBC's senior VP-interactive media. "Transactions are going to play a big part in our online strategy."

Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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