CBS has created the CBS Interactive Audience Network, essentially networking its internet audience, which, thanks to new distribution deals, will be spread among a large group of digital distributors -- some big, some small. The net effect is to re-aggregate viewers of CBS content who could be consuming it in any number of ways with any number of companies across the web.
The content-distribution deals include AOL, Microsoft, CNET Networks, Comcast, Joost, Bebo, Brightcove, Netvibes, Sling Media and Veoh.
The breadth of the deals are a clear sign that CBS is placing many bets at a time when no one has yet emerged as the hit distributor for professional, copyrighted online video. The move is also a clear departure from the come-to-us thinking that broadcast TV networks have historically had.
All of the new distribution deals will be free and ad-supported; CBS will start selling the inventory for the venture during the upfront. The programming distributed through these deals includes "CSI," "Late Show with David Letterman," "Survivor," "Showtime Championship Boxing," "CSTV Game of the Week," "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" and others, plus content from CBS Television Distribution.
"I like that traditional media companies are getting more comfortable with the fact that they don't need to create a destination site on their own," said David Card, VP-senior analyst at Jupiter Research. He said the move makes sense in a medium where audiences are still quite fragmented and will likely get more fragmented before they become concentrated.
A similar pact
CBS's move follows a similar one made several weeks ago by News Corp. and NBC to create a joint venture to negotiate distribution deals for spreading their content across the web. The joint venture's distribution deals were with the top-tier web portals, including MSN, AOL, Yahoo and MySpace, although they left open the possibility of further distribution deals. The yet-unnamed joint venture would also distribute through its own destination site.
Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive, said the deal began coming together eight days ago. He credited the NBC and News Corp. venture with blazing a trail with some of the distribution partners.
But there were several reasons CBS didn't enter the NBC-News Corp. project. For one thing, CBS was wary of entering a venture that was committed to creating its own destination site. In addition, CBS didn't want to make decisions by what Mr. Smith called a "committee of three."
"The obvious decision to have for a core strategy of a media company would be to get as much content to as many eyeballs to learn about them," he said. "Who would have thought that core strategy would be a point of difference? I don't think the world needs another portal."
CBS already has existing partnerships to distribute some of its content with Yahoo, Apple iTunes, Microsoft's Xbox and Amazon UnBox.
Google and YouTube were both notably absent from both the joint venture's earlier announcement and today's CBS announcement. CBS has a promotional deal in place with YouTube. It's worth noting that Sumner Redstone is the chairman of both CBS and its sibling, Viacom, which has a $1 billion lawsuit pending against YouTube and Google.
Of the absence of Google and YouTube as distribution partners, Mr. Smith said: "We have existing relationships with them. The NCAA channel launched with Pontiac on YouTube. They're a great partner and we look forward to doing more with them."
A 'progressive' plan
CBS's move was lauded by ad-agency executives included in the press release, including Rino Scanzoni, Group M's chief investment officer, and Curt Hecht, chief digital officer at GM Planworks, who called the move "progressive."
The project is a signal CBS is committed to "building an audience where the audience is," said Jason Hirschhorn, who was, until less than a year ago, global digital officer at MTV Networks and negotiated the CBS deal with Sling Media as president of the Sling Media Entertainment Group. Both clips and full-length CBS content will be distributed via Clip & Sling and SlingPlayer software launching this summer.
CBS plans to mine the distribution plan for research. "Marketing doesn't mean logos and windbreakers," Mr. Smith said. "It means data and analytics, scorecards." He said the company will let data and analytics decide how to market the distribution partners to consumers. If sports ends up being wildly popular on AOL, CBs will take marketing cues from that. If "Ghost Whisperer" does well on young-skewing Bebo, it will market that show on the social network.
Also worth noting: The deal is international, and by Mr. Smith's estimates 70% of the distribution partners' collective audience is outside of the U.S. The venture is, he said, complementary to CBS's current international distribution deals.