Execs Back the Broadcast Model at TCA

Jan 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Long live network television! So went the refrain among broadcast network entertainment chiefs as they were barraged with questions about new distribution platforms during last week’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.

The traditional broadcast model, with a network of local stations distributing programming exclusively produced for television, will long remain the primary way to get content to viewers, the executives asserted.

Even with changes in the marketplace brought by program distribution via the Internet and digital devices such as the iPod, the network is still the most viable model for The WB’s parent company, Time Warner, said Garth Ancier, chairman of The WB.

“[The broadcast model is] too important to not go forward,” Mr. Ancier said at his network’s winter press tour presentation on Monday at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena, Calif. CBS, Fox and UPN also held press tour sessions last week. ABC and NBC were scheduled to present over the weekend.

Among the biggest reasons the networks say they will prevail: advertisers.

CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler dismissed claims last Wednesday that advertisers would abandon the networks for new opportunities.

“They still recognize the 30-second spot is still the best way for a marketer to get his message to the masses,” she said following her first press tour presentation since her network became the centerpiece of the new company CBS Corp.

She characterized as “an open dialogue” CBS’s discussion with advertisers over ways to use new technologies with CBS content. The promotional nature of the new platforms means “you’re going to have more audience,” Ms. Tassler said.

Of course, the executives also admitted they are still busy trying to sort out what model users will embrace and how those formats will work.

Understanding how to incorporate iPods, watching content on cellphones and other emerging technologies are ongoing industry processes, Mr. Ancier said. “All this is such uncharted territory and has come so fast,” Mr. Ancier said, noting that all of the networks are figuring out how to utilize new platforms and make money from them.

In 2004 The WB became the first network to stream online the entire premiere episode of a debuting series when it made the now canceled “Jack and Bobby” available through AOL for Broadband for eight days before it was broadcast. This fall the network made a similar sneak preview arrangement with Yahoo for the debut episode of “Supernatural.”

Like Mr. Ancier, Ms. Tassler admitted companies like CBS have no idea what model users will embrace and how those formats will work.

“The truth is we don’t know where we’re headed,” she said. “We know we’re going for the ride. We embrace all the new media.”

One aspect of emerging media platforms that network executives seem confident about is their promotional power.

Ms. Tassler said new platforms will help attract more viewers to CBS’s programming.

“Quite simply, we see all those as an opportunity to enhance marketing and distribution,” Ms. Tassler said. The focus for now will be to highlight existing CBS programming instead of creating content for the new platforms, she said.

“Clearly what our intent is is to drive people back to that first-run broadcast,” she said.

In December CBS made a deal with Verizon Wireless’ V Cast service to provide prime-time preview clips of network offerings and features from its morning news and late-night series. In January CBS announced it is developing a “microseries” with 40- to 60-second installments called “The Courier” that would run during commercial breaks for seven nights before being offered on CBS.com and through V Cast.

In terms of using new platforms and their effects on CBS’s relationship with its affiliates, Ms. Tassler said local stations “have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.”

“They know we respect them,” Ms. Tassler said of the affiliates. “We have a joint vested interest in preserving the first run.”

Look Before You Leap

But one of Ms. Tassler’s fellow network heads, Fox’s Peter Liguori, warned during his TCA session last Tuesday of jumping too rapidly into deals with new distributors.

One of the risks of making quick deals is that the network’s relationship with local Fox stations could be harmed, he said.

While other networks are jumping ahead in terms of making deals with new digital platforms for their programming, Fox is moving slowly, Mr. Liguori said.

“It’s been our strategy not to go out and be first, but go out with our best strategy,” he said. “We’re taking a more measured approach to what works and what may not work. It’s the quintessential marathon, not a sprint.”

Asked which model he thinks is most likely to work among the new platforms, Mr. Liguori quipped, “If I had that sense, I’d work at a [venture capital firm] right now and try to add a zero to my salary.”

Mr. Liguori told reporters after his TCA session that local affiliates’ place in distributing programming will not be threatened by increased use of new technologies.

“We all have to all work together,” he said. “We need the affiliates, the affiliates need us.”

In her own press tour session Thursday, UPN President Dawn Ostroff didn’t even wait for reporters’ questions before explaining that younger viewers who make up the network’s core audience are “early adopters” of new technology, which explains why last fall UPN was the first network to partner with Google, making available a streaming episode of its debuting comedy “Everybody Hates Chris.”

“We’ll continue to get our quality content on our new platforms, expanding points of contact with the audience and creating new revenue streams,” she said.

But new platforms are most valuable now for steering viewers to original broadcasts, as opposed to offering original content, Ms. Ostroff said, echoing her colleague Ms. Tassler.

“It’s a way of driving viewers back to the television set,” Ms. Ostroff said. “It’s a way to reach out to people who can’t see every episode.”