AOL Welcomes Back 'Kotter’

AOL.com, Warner Bros. to stream up to 100 TV series by end of ’06
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Time Warner is launching a six-channel broadband network that will let viewers stream complete episodes of vintage programs.

The In2TV network debuts on AOL.com in January and will offer 10 episodes apiece of 30 series, including the hits Alice, Growing Pains and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. AOL.com expects to be offering 100 series and more than 3,400 hours of content by the end of 2006.

“This builds on what has been our programming focus for many years and aligns well with our move to the open Web,” says Kevin Conroy, AOL Media Networks executive VP. “Our focus is on building a media business and driving advertising revenue.”

ATTRACTING EYEBALLS

Amidst a recent flurry of new-media initiatives, the move is the first to fully embrace an advertising model. Conroy says the model—likely four spots for each half-hour of content, with single 15- or 30-second spots replacing the traditional pod of three or four ads—allows Time Warner to bring more content online faster. That, in turn, means more eyeballs, he says, to drive ad revenues and additional content.

“There are reasons that there were decades of ad-supported TV before there was the first pay channel,” Conroy says. “We firmly believe the ad model is the way to build a market and business.”

In2TV’s six original channels are LOL TV (comedies such as Welcome Back Kotter, Perfect Strangers and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper), Dramarama (Falcon Crest, Sisters and Eight Is Enough), Toontopia (animated shows like Beetlejuice and Pinky and the Brain), Heroes and Horrors (Wonder Woman, Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman and Babylon 5), Rush (action shows such as La Femme Nikita, Kung Fu and The Fugitive), and Vintage (Growing Pains, F-Troop and Maverick).

Two channels will be added next year for reality shows and cancelled series, the latter perhaps becoming a clearinghouse for unseen programs. “A [cancelled] show could be available almost immediately, [including] any unaired episodes,” says Eric Frankel, president, Warner Bros. Domestic Cable distribution.

The In2TV project has been under way for nearly three years. Warner Bros. began getting TV programs cleared for distribution over the Internet back when the streaming experience was riddled with bandwidth potholes that quickly degraded the viewing experience to the equivalent of a high-tech slide show.

SONG-RIGHTS HEADACHES

Frankel says one of the biggest headaches came from getting rights to music, particularly with songs heard in the background of a scene, such as one set in a bar.

“There are issues where we have to go through episode by episode and clear the rights to a song that was used in a scene,” he says. “[Or] you may have a show where the theme song is the only thing that needs to be cleared.”

Once Frankel and his team cleared the shows, the Warner Bros. technical crew went to work digitizing the programs into a suitable format and attaching the metadata that includes a description of the episode and the actors, as well as other information that helps the content become fully searchable. Technology from streaming company Kontiki delivers the shows so viewers can watch them full-screen.

Giving visitors full-search functionality, such as pulling up every Christmas episode for various series or amassing TV appearances by Brad Pitt before he was famous, is only the beginning of the In2TV interactive experience, say Time Warner execs. “This is about giving the user an experience where they can interact with the programming while creating a new window of distribution for our content,” says Conroy.

INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCES

That incorporates a variety of interactive experiences. Early demos include a Kung Fu-related game where the user attempts to snatch a rock out of a hand; if done successfully, this unlocks hidden commentary tracks from talent and producers. Users can also build an AOL Buddy List icon with digital fashions from Welcome Back Kotter, or they can enter a karaoke mode where theme-song lyrics to a show such as Chico and the Man are shown on-screen.

The ancillary experiences open the door to more revenue streams, says Time Warner. One possible application involves a People’s Court episode (the show is slated to be added in the future) where viewers can bet on who they think will win the case and earn points toward prizes. “The logic is that a Pepsi or someone like that would sponsor it, and if [players] get 50,000 points, they can get a T-shirt or cooler,” says Frankel. “Initial conversations with advertisers show they love this type of thing.”

For now, In2TV will have its strongest appeal with nostalgia buffs who miss those shows they can no longer find on TV. Noting that those shows, not surprisingly, were easiest to get the rights to, Frankel adds that newer programs will soon be in the fold.

“In six or eight months, we’ll have shows that are playing on popular cable networks or have recently come off a network,” he says. “We’ll be getting deeper into the mix.”

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