Networks thrust into 21st century

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Soon desperate housewives across America will be able to play "Desperate Housewives" the video game, unless, that is, they'd rather try their hands at "Lost."

Yes, the broadcast networks are finally starting to make their digital plays and outline their strategies for operating in an interactive world of consumer-empowering technologies. ABC's video games-set for a 2006 launch-are among a host of emerging media moves by the networks, 800-pound traditional-media gorillas that suddenly find themselves experimenting with online streaming video, video on demand, mobile phone content and podcasts.

"It's definitely game on," said Bruce Gersh, Los Angeles-based senior VP-business development at ABC Entertainment. "This is the year where everybody is attempting to play in this space. "

So the broadcast networks woke up to the power of these technologies? Well, sort of. The real impetus for this new-media movement came more from advertisers eager not only to experiment in these areas, but also to connect their multimillion-dollar TV buys with more reliable ways of measuring ad effectiveness than ratings.

"There is a little bit of inertia when you sit at the top of the heap. For the first time we've started hearing that this is being driven by the advertiser side rather than the sales side," said David Cohen, senior VP-interactive media director at Universal McCann, part of Interpublic Group of Cos.

Audrey Steele, senior VP-sales research and marketing at Fox Broadcasting Co., agrees: "The advertisers are pushing. All our major clients are saying `What have you got?"' Ms. Steele points to a speech given by Jim Stengel, Procter & Gamble Co.'s global chief marketing officer, back in November as the tipping point for much of the new-media activity. Mr. Stengel called for greater experimentation with alternatives to mass media.


"That put a lot of pressure on. There had been activity around gathering information then all of a sudden it was, `What have you got?"' she said, adding that marketers want to reach the people who are asking to have programming delivered to them.

The frenzy of activity at the broadcast networks comes after years of watching their cable brethren run off ahead. Chris Boothe, exec VP and co-director of the video investment group at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, said: "Cable networks have taken an early lead ... because they typically produce more of their own content. Networks, however, are ... constructing their own online properties and their ability to aggregate content from producers." CBS, for example, has partnered with the producer of "Big Brother" on a paid Web site that allows consumers to access feeds out of the "Big Brother" house.

These ventures don't yet always lead to an opportunity for advertising. In many cases, new media are still regarded as experiments closed for sale until the kinks are worked out, or the business models are established. ABC's Mr. Gersh said, "Video-game advertising is big business and we want to make sure we work directly with the network to maximize the opportunity of a release, or a broadband product or a dot-com game. We will work with the integrated marketing group to make sure ads are a part of that" when the time is right.

Much of Fox's learning in the wireless realm has come from its partnership with Cingular, which sponsors "American Idol." The company created original "mob-isodes" of its hit show "24," short clips that can be downloaded to mobile phones. Already the News Corp. unit claims its content reaches 180 million cellphone users in the U.S.


Fox is also experimenting with original programming via broadband video with "The Late Show on Fox," hosted by newcomer Michael Krogmann. Fox, which does not air late-night programming, is sampling the talk-show/comedy-sketch show as seven- to eight-minute clips that feature cast members from "Arrested Development" and "American Idol."

Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC is also readying an ABC/Touchstone entertainment channel destined for VOD, which is still in the early stages, though other entertainment content could land on cable systems by the fall. "I go back to what will define each of us differently and it is quality," said Mr. Gersh, who wants network-quality pictures on whatever screen ABC's programming lands.

CBS, under Larry Kramer, president-digital media, is planning a slew of new-media-related announcements in the next three months, including additional online investment. Mr. Kramer oversees, CBS Sportsline and a host of other sites and is looking at expanding the company's searchable video archives beyond its current deal with Yahoo.

"We are looking at certain sports rights to highlight video from the NCAA," said Mr. Kramer. "We're going to be podcasting with news and we're talking about airing pilots on the Web, shows that never made it, to get people's comments on them." Mr. Kramer is working closely with CBS's entertainment programming staff to make sure producers think of the digital opportunities.

CBS isn't the only network bringing in a new digital chief to oversee its operations. In April, NBC Universal named Deborah Reif as president-NBC Universal Digital Media. At an analyst meeting in February, the company outlined its strategy as a pure content provider in new media and estimated that digital-content distribution could be worth around $14 billion, with NBC Universal hoping to take between $200 million to $400 million of the pie. NBC's content runs across four separate wireless platforms in different guises and, like ABC, the company has made the most of its news programming in areas from podcasting to broadband video.

Not everyone thinks that nets are moving as fast as they ought to be. Mitch Oscar, exec VP, Carat Digital, part of Aegis Group, said: " They will become more competitive when we're off analog [spectrum] and into digital in 2009."

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