November 13, 2007
The Launch of NBC Direct

Over the weekend, NBC launched the beta version of NBC Direct, the site offering full-length downloads of popular NBC shows that they announced back in mid-September.

This release appropriately coincides with reports of a study conducted at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania about television viewing habits online.

The study, which tracked a dramatic increase in television viewing done online over the past two seasons, showed that television content was being watched more despite the decrease in actual television viewing. Moreover, authorized web viewing in the past two years surpassed the increase in unauthorized viewing.

These patterns seem to reinforce what even the networks have caught onto by now -- that they have a better shot at curbing unauthorized distribution of their content by providing authorized alternatives online, instead of just issuing take-down orders in hopes of redirecting people back to their television sets.

In this light, NBC direct seems to be on the right track generally, but as it exists at this stage, the service doesn't appear to be useful enough to compete with bit torrent or other unauthorized downloading options.

To begin with, the service seems not to understand some of the technological inclinations of the video-downloading population. I can't personally speak to the speed or ease of the downloads, as the service is currently incompatible with Macs and no one here at C3 owns a PC, but NBC Direct also requires Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. While it might seem to make sense to make a service compatible with the most common software, many people who are currently downloading video (and I dare suggest a significant number of the students surveyed in the Wharton study) prefer other, less cumbersome browsers and media players.

Hopefully though, this is a temporary oversight and future versions will support other browsers and media players.

Another factor that will make it hard for NBC direct to compete with existing downloading programs and sites is the fact that shows are only available for seven days after their initial airing, I suspect so not to cut too much into syndication or DVD sales, and thus doesn't facilitate catching up on a long-running show.

Furthermore, it's then unclear what the value of downloading a show instead of just watching it streaming might be, other than to have access to the show offline. Even then, you are not given total freedom over how and when you watch, as the file automatically deletes 48 hours after it has been opened. In the end, it is still too soon to tell if NBC Direct is a sign of a genuine move towards further integration of online video into the network model, or just another wild shot made in hopes of capitalizing on practices that they don't quite understand.