Networks Get the Net
TV's online surprise: Shows on the Web build audiences and lure advertisers
Later this month, NBC's hit series Heroes returns to the air after a six-week hiatus that has nearly driven its hard-core fans to antidepressants. In the interim, they have kept up their hero worship on the Web, reviewing past episodes of the show about ordinary people with superhuman powers, chatting incessantly about plot twists to come, dissecting the animated graphic novel that accompanies each show for clues, and generally offering one another electronic solace during this difficult time.
The uninitiated, too, have come online, using the break as a chance to sample Heroes for the first time or bring themselves up to speed on the complicated story line. All told, there have been 10 million full episodes streamed and 21 million visits to the Heroes site since the show took temporary leave, according to NBC. As a result, when Heroes reclaims its Monday-night post April 23, it may well be greeted by even more fans and higher ratings than it left behindthanks in large part to the Internet.
But wait. Wasn't the Internet supposed to have brought television to its knees by now, stealing viewers, cannibalizing ratings, reducing advertising rates, and leaving the industry's time-honored revenue model a shambles? Wasn't it supposed to make network broadcasting the next music industry, drained of life by legal battles, copyright problems, and piracy?
That was the fear. Here's the reality: In the 18 months since ABC reconfigured the broadcasting world order by making downloads of Desperate Housewives and Lost available on iTunes, the networks have learned to love the Web and its potential to increase viewership and attract advertising. Since the fall, when all the networks joined the online party, more than 200 million episodes of mostly prime-time shows have been streamed and downloaded.
And the numbers keep climbing. "Two years ago, a lot of the networks wouldn't even talk about putting their precious content online, especially for free. It was blasphemy," says Hilmi Ozguc, CEO of Maven Networks, an online TV technology firm. "Now they've got religion about it."
YouTube rival. Late last month, NBC Universal and News Corp. said they would launch a vast, advertising-supported online video network this summer, offering thousands of hours of free TV shows, movies, and video clips. The content, from at least 12 networks and two major movie studios, will include such shows as The Simpsons, Heroes, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and Saturday Night Live, as well as movies like Borat and The Devil Wears Prada. It will be distributed at a new website (still unnamed) and by AOL, MySpace, MSN, and Yahoo!, which together service 96 percent of Internet users.
The alliance is being viewed, at least in part, as an answer to video-sharing giant YouTube. It's intended to give the big media companies more control over their own content (and its advertising potential) and protect them from copyright breaches. Viacom, parent of MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, is suing YouTube and parent company Google for $1 billion on the grounds that YouTube has not acted aggressively enough to remove Viacom's content from its site.