ABC's Sweeney on Digital Plans


As broadcast TV's fall season kicks off, the networks last week unveiled plans to expand the distribution of their content online, with ABC, NBC and Fox announcing divergent strategies.

NBC, which this summer cut ties with Apple's iTunes, said it will begin giving away free downloads of programming for play on PCs and portable devices through a service called NBC Direct. Conversely, Fox said it would make premiere episodes of its new and returning shows available free of charge on iTunes.

Meanwhile, ABC said it would bring its branded broadband video player to AOL Video, moving its online programming for the first time beyond just its own site and iTunes. On the heels of its announcement, B&C's Anne Becker talked to Anne Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks, and president, Disney-ABC Television Group, about her group's digital strategy.

You've been steadfast in only distributing shows through and iTunes. Why now are you pairing with a portal?

“Why now” is really because of AOL and the fact that they realized the value of our player—the value as a business, and to both of us the value to the viewers.

But you've said in the past you only wanted your online content in an ABC-branded environment, right?

When we started down the path, we developed criteria and we had to think about what kinds of partners we would work with.

So, this is a different phase of distributing our content. First was download to own. Second was watch for free with advertising, and this next phase is really making sure that the player—which we learned through research and experimenting—was a really great experience for people and really helped us build out this multiplatform ecosystem we'd developed for ABC's content.

We're in different forms in different places. We, the ABC television sales team, continue to sell that [online ad] time. We sell the time on the network and the time on the player. We get the benefit of a strong partner in AOL, their tremendous traffic.

As far as what the affiliates get, does this fall under the deal you struck with them last year?

Yes. We've been very dedicated, very committed to working with our affiliates and our advertisers in this new digital space, and this gives them the ability to increase their traffic.

Is digital distribution all about promotion, or are you seeing significant revenue off any of it?

It's still in its very early days. Remember, our player, which just went HD this summer, is just a year old, so it's too early to compare it to revenue from broadcast, but it's definitely a space where we're learning more about our viewers and more about our delivery of content.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned in your year operating the player?

We've learned a lot about viewer behavior. The average age of the person watching a show on broadcast in primetime is 48, and the average age of the same show on the player is 28. One note that came early on was the ability to manipulate the size of the screen, and that's exactly what the group's developed. Not only a beautiful picture and a fantastic experience in HD, but they've also been very responsive to viewers who wanted it on a small screen.

The other thing we've learned is that with so many options out there, people really need help navigating the different ways that people can get their shows. Keeping this under the umbrella of ABC makes it easier for people.

Why isn't Disney/ABC part of the NBC/NewsCorp online video joint-venture Hulu?

You know, I've said to the Hulu people, the door's open. We're continuing to look at other distribution deals with other portals. But for the moment, we feel strongly that using ABC as a navigation device as opposed to whatever companies construct whatever partnerships is a road we're going down at the moment.