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Fox TV Hopes Viewers Stay Tuned, Online

October 04, 2006|Chris Gaither and Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writers

Recognizing that Major League Baseball may strike out with some TV viewers, Fox on Tuesday put several of its prime-time shows online to tide fans over while baseball playoffs preempt regular programming.

Fox executives said they hoped the Internet broadcasts of such shows as "Bones" and "Prison Break" would help viewers keep an interest in a show while it's off the air -- and, potentially, win new fans. Toyota Motor Corp., Burger King Holdings Inc. and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. will sponsor the programs, which will be repeats of this season's episodes.

Beyond Fox, the just-started fall television season marks a turning point for the major broadcast networks, which are blowing up their traditional business model as ratings erode.

ABC, CBS and NBC have moved many new series and prime-time favorites to the Internet, either in the form of $1.99 downloads or advertising-supported free streams.

The experiments stem from the recognition that huge audiences are increasingly comfortable watching videos on computers and mobile devices -- and that advertisers are following.

"MySpace, in any typical 24-hour period, blows away any prime-time ratings you'd get on any broadcast network," said David Cohen, an executive vice president at ad-buyer Universal McCann. "There comes a point -- call it a tipping point or whatever you'd like -- at which it becomes an undeniable fact that the way we've been thinking about things and doing business for the past 50 years isn't the way we should do things anymore."

Television is still an enormous industry, pulling in about $60 billion in advertising revenue a year. That's more than triple all advertising spending on the Web.

But advertisers are increasing their budgets for the Internet much faster than for television as viewers discover the convenience of watching shows on computers and iPods. Plus, TV executives are realizing that the Internet unchains broadcasting from the traditional linear programming model.

"You can see the Fox people thinking through how to parallel program across the Fox properties," said Tim Hanlon, a senior vice president with Denuo, the media consulting arm of ad giant Publicis Group. "Ten or 20 years ago, going to baseball effectively blew a hole in your prime-time schedule. Now Fox is thinking more progressively."

For example, if someone would rather watch "Prison Break" than baseball, they can head online. The Fox shows are available on myspace.com/fox and on the websites of 24 affiliates, such as Los Angeles' KTTV-TV Channel 11, www.myfoxla.com.

"Networks' executives are starting to recognize that all this explosion of digital media and consumer control is not all bad," Hanlon said. "The flip side is there can be some very intriguing business models for good here. Prime among them is this ability to program across multiple platforms simultaneously."

Fox typically premieres new series several weeks before other networks, so viewers have time to get invested in the shows before they go on hiatus for the baseball playoffs, said Peter Liguori, president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting.

He said he wanted to wait for feedback on the partnership with Fox Interactive Media, the News Corp. digital arm that oversees MySpace, before deciding whether to make online shows a permanent fixture.

"At this particular time I do not believe viewers perceive their computers as primary sources of broadcast television entertainment," Liguori said. "It augments and supports viewership."

Fox Interactive Media already sells digital downloads of 20th Century Fox TV shows and movies through its Direct2Drive website and is soon expanding the service to MySpace.

"We want to experiment with both downloading and streaming," Fox Interactive Media President Ross Levinsohn said. "We'll see if there is a winning business model at the end of the day."

Fox is the latest broadcast network to jump into the digital ring. CBS offers free streams of some shows on its Web video service, Innertube, and sells downloads of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and other shows through Google Video, Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes store and Amazon.com Inc.'s Unbox.

NBC Universal this season began streaming all of its new shows on nbc.com. Its television group sells more than 50 broadcast and cable shows on iTunes.

Marc Graboff, president at NBC Universal Television, West Coast, said the network was simply following its audience.

"The audiences are telling us all -- just like they did with the music business, but they didn't want to hear it -- that they want to consume this content on an on-demand basis," Graboff said.

Besides, new channels can build new audiences.

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