ABC's On-Demand 'Moviebeam' Gets a Test

Without fanfare, network experiments with streaming service
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Two years ago, when it was trying to dazzle its TV affiliates with an array of potential broadcast-spectrum projects for the digital age, Disney and ABC officials were calling one such project "Blockbuster in a Box" or "Movie Box." The idea was to digitally stream movies via the unused portion of a station's spectrum to set-top boxes for an on-demand pay-TV service.

Two years later, the project is still taking shape. Now, though, the proposed service is called "Moviebeam" and is scheduled for testing in three markets—Salt Lake City and two still to be determined—later this year. Those tests will try to assess consumer demand for the service, which will offer 100 Disney movies from both current and library product.

That much was revealed by Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner in a speech at the NAB convention last week that dealt mostly with piracy and copyright issues.

Beyond that, Disney wasn't saying much. But sources indicated that the proposed service is now based on technology developed by Dotcast Inc., a Seattle-based datacasting firm in which Disney has purchased what some said last week is a controlling stake. A Disney spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny those reports. Dotcast President Doug Evans did not return repeated calls to his office by deadline.

The Moviebeam service will be delivered via the analog broadcast spectrum, although involvement by ABC affiliates will be limited for a number of reasons. Sources say that, with the Dotcast technology, the movies can be delivered only on the high end of the VHF band and not on any part of the UHF TV band. Additionally, some PBS stations will get first crack at carrying the service because of an agreement between PBS and Dotcast that predates Disney's investment in the latter.

Jackie Weiss, CEO of PBS National Datacast, referred all questions about Moviebeam and PBS's involvement with it to Disney. She did confirm PBS's ongoing "relationship" with Dotcast.

Sources familiar with the situation say Dotcast tested the technology for Moviebeam in Seattle on both the ABC and PBS outlets some time last year and it appeared to work well.

Bruce Baker, executive vice president of Cox Broadcasting and chairman of the ABC TV affiliates advisory board, confirmed that Disney/ABC executives had briefed the board on the service a couple of weeks ago. A number of affiliates said they weren't aware of it, however.

Baker said it is hard to assess the service at this point because the network has not offered a specific business proposal for affiliates to consider. He did confirm that station participation would be "somewhat limited" given the inability of low-end VHF and UHF outlets to become involved.

That situation could change. As envisioned, the service would "migrate" to digital spectrum once stations begin to more fully utilize their digital channels. "Whether that happens in our lifetime is an open-ended question," quipped one network executive who remains doubtful.

And some critics say Dotcast technology may have at least one technical snag. In March, Modulation Sciences Inc. told the FCC that it believes Dotcast's datacasts could cause interference with certain audio feedback channels used primarily for electronic newsgathering. MSI asked for further testing of the Dotcast technology before the company is allowed to launch a full-fledged service. Dotcast responded that MSI was too late with its request and did not have standing in any event.