Digital distribution and network television branding may seem like strange bedfellows, but a recent announcement by NBC suggests to me that they might be a better match than expected.
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Is the new NBC strategy a viable model? Parts of it definitely are, but there are some hurdles to jump first.
One that stands out to me is the pay to download model. More and more, media companies are shying away from paid online content, The New York Times recently joining their ranks. Granted, a TV show is more expensive to produce than a newspaper article, but that should not be the rationale for charging consumers a fee, much less setting the price. When the marginal cost of letting one more person see the show is basically zero and it's very easily available elsewhere (albeit often illegally) for free, next to a lot of other content audiences want to see that doesn't belong to NBC, and not tied to a cool device like the iPod, pricing content is a slippery slope.
The way in which people view television content they access online is a very important consideration here, that I think would influence their willingness to pay. I have yet to find solid research on this (and if anyone out there could suggest some, I would love to hear about it), but I don't think people consume TV programming on their laptops the same way that they consume a story in the Times, or how they consume TV programming on a DVD, or recorded on a VCR or TiVo and replayed on a television.
In the Times article about the announcement, Vivi Zigler, the executive vice president of NBC Digital Entertainment, is quoted saying, "[n]ot only does this feature give them more control, but it also gives them a higher quality video experience." Depending on how they're watching the video, the audience may not really care about the experience - personally, I don't watch TV on my computer when I want super high resolution - I use my TV. Computer screens typically aren't big enough for groups of people to gather around to watch a program anyway. With higher quality also comes the possibility that connection speeds could be a problem in downloading or streaming the video, particularly for audiences outside of major metropolitan areas. I actually think the key message is convenience over content, of the option to have programs delivered directly to you.
The final consideration is that there is really no way to beat the aggregator sites in terms of convenience - they offer more options than any network could hope to. NBC and Fox may be hedging their bets a little here with Hulu. But, what NBC or any network can do, is adopt a strategy similar to the one the studios did with DVD - offer something to audiences that they won't get anywhere else. Online, the possibilities are even greater than they were on DVDs, and could include things like codes to get secret information about the shows and inside information on the cast for those who register and watch a certain number of targeted- ad supported videos online. Not only would this mean revenue, but it would also help networks identify and communicate with their programs' fans, a relationship that may have helped in the recent spat over Jericho.
Somewhat ironically, judging by a recent report in the LA Times, it looks like CBS has some ideas in that direction, focusing on getting fans onto the site to interact with other fans an get some insider information, things that CBS probably hopes will keep them coming back. At the same time, CBS' distribution strategy seems to remain to be to get just about all of its content out basically anywhere, and it remains to be seen how successful that is. Watch for my upcoming post on network websites and their features for more analysis on this topic.
Will NBC's new strategy help the network brand itself? Will that help it to find its way online? Or will the CBS playbook be more effective? Stay tuned...