ABC plans digital pay service

Network, affiliates will form technology committee; multicasting also in mix

ABC is developing a pay-movie service that would give its affiliates one of those vaunted second-revenue streams in the digital age.

Network officials described the service as "Blockbuster in a box" while briefing affiliates. It is one of several ventures on which ABC is working with parent Disney's Imagineering division. All would involve the affiliates.

Disney Imagineering's Eric Haseltine unveiled the projects at the ABC affiliates meeting in Las Vegas last Monday.

In addition to the pay-movie service, Haseltine described Internet applications and confirmed that the network was looking closely at multichannel services that include feeding cable-type channels to broadcast viewers via mutliplexed digital signals. Such feeds would occur when the network wouldn't be transmitting high-definition programming.

Sources said the network and the affiliates would form a technology committee to evaluate the business prospects of these and other projects in the near future. Rob Hubbard, of Hubbard Broadcasting will take the affiliate lead on that committee.

Sources at the meeting said Haseltine described the "Blockbuster" project as one that would transmit perhaps 100 feature films over affiliates' spectrum and that would be stored in a digital set-top box. The business model wasn't specified, sources said. But they added that it go could several ways, including some form of pay-per-view model or even a monthly subscription fee. The project reminded some of TeleFirst, a service ABC offered in Chicago briefly in the early 1980s that transmitted programming fare directly to viewers' VCRs during the overnight hours. But lack of demand killed the subscription service.

ABC officials refused to confirm or deny any of the details, saying it was "premature."

Bruce Baker, executive vice president, Cox Broadcasting, and chairman of the ABC affiliate meeting, confirmed only that the network "talked about some new concepts involving digital usage that the affiliates and the network" might collaborate on.