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Click Here for 'Chris'

As networks Webcast shows, skeptics wonder how money can be made 9/30/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Chris Rock fans who Googled the comedian last week saw a blue box linking to the debut episode of Everybody Hates Chris, UPN's fall darling.

Google and UPN offered surfers the 22-minute premiere gratis and free of advertising—no pop-ups, no sponsor links, no spots during the show—in a debut Webcasting for both.

Many on Madison Avenue wonder just how money is made from the arrangement and how effective Web airings are at gaining viewers in the first place.

“Nobody knows what the value of it is just yet,” says Stacy Lynn Koerner, executive VP/director of global research integration, Initiative Media. “There's not enough activity to have measured all the streaming events in order to have some sort of baseline as to what's likely to happen.”

Seeking a profitable business model

As viewers increasingly watch television on multiple platforms, programmers are racing to deliver it on the Web in hopes that their presence will evolve into a profitable business model. For now, many networks are dabbling, premiering shows on the Web before their TV debuts. This year, The WB premiered Supernatural on Yahoo!, and last year NBC Webcast The Office on social-networking site MySpace.com—each doing so at least a week before the show aired on TV.

No one knows whether such deals, aside from gaining publicity and buzz, actually drive viewers to the series on TV or strengthen fans' emotional ties to the characters.

According to preliminary overnight ratings, Chris' second episode was down from the first week, to 5.6 million viewers and a 2.3 rating/7 share in the 18-49 demo. The first episode drew 7.6 million viewers and a 3.2/9.

Pay-cable network Showtime saw a similar result when it streamed Fat Actress on Yahoo! simultaneously with its TV debut. It attracted its highest-ever audience for a series premiere, with 944,000 viewers on cable and about 900,000 more downloading it on Yahoo!. But the second week's episode dropped to 315,000 viewers.

Last year, The WB logged 700,000 streams for its premiere of Jack & Bobby on AOL a week before its TV debut, but the Web activity didn't do enough for the show, which struggled with low ratings and never made it back for a second season.

For UPN, the Chris deal offered a chance to further publicize a much hyped show before its second episode and gain viewers who might not even have known the program airs on the network. UPN chose Google in part because the search engine drove viewers back to the UPN Web site for additional footage and information, whereas other sites would run the extra footage themselves.

For Google, which launched a beta version of its Google Video site in January, the deal offered a buzzed-about program with permission from a network to run it. Google Video had previously run only user-submitted videos, as well as still shots and closed-captioned text of TV shows, which do not require network permission.

Evolve to a pay model

The company is reaching out to other networks and studios for permission to run their video content. It will likely evolve a model in which users pay to download the content, rather than earning revenue from advertising, which is not part of its current business model, according to Google Director of Video Jennifer Feikin.

“It's something interesting, and we continue to talk to content owners about how to work with advertising,” she says.

“They're going to need to play nice with the networks,” says Koerner. “They went into this equation saying we've got the most advanced search technology that will allow us to catalog your entire library without permission. You don't want to go into a network with that kind of opener because you don't welcome them as a partner.”

Larry Kramer, president of digital media for CBS, which owns UPN, calls the deal a “fascinating first step,” noting that it took the network months of negotiations to secure because it required approval from network execs, the show's producers and local UPN stations.

If the Google experiment proves fruitful to UPN, it could serve as a template for networks to arrange Web windows for shows while they are still in development, something they have been slow to implement for video-on-demand. Some even envision networks' providing advertisers their shows' number of Web streams right alongside Nielsen numbers.

Still, others in the industry are skeptical about the proliferation of Webcasting and its effect on drawing viewers to shows on TV.

“This is a buzz thing; it's purely sampling,” says Carat Digital Executive VP Mitch Oscar, who specializes in interactive media. “It doesn't mean anything more than that. Everything on broadcast or cable will somehow find its way to a broadband experience, and now the question is how will this enrich things.”

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