For the second time this summer, a major network has announced it will premiere an original production on broadband before its network airing.
ESPN will show “Hustle,” a two-hour biographical film about the fall of baseball legend Pete Rose, commercial-free on ESPN Broadband affiliates Sept. 23, followed by a network debut two days later.
“We believe that high-speed Internet is only compelling if the consumer has something to watch that can move faster than dial-up,” said Tanya Van Court, VP and GM of ESPN Broadband. “This gives broadband customers exclusive access to something they wouldn’t have this early otherwise.”
The announcement comes on the heels of The WB’s premiere of its teen drama “Jack & Bobby” on AOL for Broadband from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7. The tactic is a cutting-edge way to promote a new product, but the ratings impact of giving such sneak peeks is still unclear.
Looking at “Jack & Bobby” as a test case, AOL reported that the commercial-free “Jack & Bobby” was a success and “viewed nearly 700,000 times” among its 4.1 million subscribers. However, the show was divided into four chapters that could be viewed one at a time, or viewers could download the episode in its entirety. Since each chapter download counted as a “viewing” of “Jack & Bobby,” the actual viewership may have been around 200,000. An AOL spokesperson said the service did not track unique users. Last year an episode of “Everwood” streamed in a similar format garnered 150,000 viewings, though that broadband airing was of a rerun.
When “Jack & Bobby” made its well-publicized WB premiere, it garnered 4.6 million viewers and a 1.7 Nielsen Media Research rating in the 18 to 49 demographic. Overall, the show was down from its “Charmed” lead-in and down from last year’s “Tarzan” premiere in the same slot. But among female teens-The WB’s target demographic-the show made a very strong showing and won the hour.
The WB spokesman Paul McGuire agreed that the ratings impact of debuting “Jack & Bobby” online was difficult to quantify. Like a billboard on Sunset Boulevard or a radio spot in Kansas City, marketing efforts for any given show result in a cumulative impact, even if one effort is as high-tech as a broadband debut.
“We felt positive about it, and it was an innovative marketing experiment and one we would consider repeating,” Mr. McGuire said.
At ESPN, Ms. Van Court said she believed the “Hustle” high-speed preview will prove to be a ratings boon.
“The strength of our lineup is only enhanced by getting exposure for `Hustle’ on all platforms,” Ms. Van Court said. “We think this will get more people talking about the movie.”
Also, she noted, that with 650,000 ESPN Broadband subscribers, “our broadband community is fairly small and exclusive.”