Comcast's online TV offering is starting to look like a real competitor to Hulu. CBS confirmed this morning it is joining the cable company's On Demand Online trial, part of the industry-wide TV Everywhere initiative. CBS is the first broadcast network to provide content to the online TV service.
CBS has not yet said which content will be available to the trial which is expected to start next month in 5,000 homes in Comcast's footprint. CBS said it would test a range of current and library content.
Yesterday, Time Warner said HBO and Cinemax would also join the line-up, and last week Liberty Media's Starz properties. CBS's Showtime pay-TV service is not yet signed up though CBS is still considering making it part of the Comcast line-up.
The move, which B&C predicted last month, is an interesting one for CBS which has so far stayed out of providing content to Hulu because of Hulu's desire to control the online content exclusively. CBS took some flack for that decision, given Hulu's ownership structure which includes News Corp., NBC Universal and Disney-ABC TV, all owners of broadcast networks. This move demonstrates CBS's willingness to become partners in online ventures when the deal terms are right. CBS owns its own online destination TV.com, which is a rival to Hulu and has long stated its desire to make its online distribution strategy about open access.
The On Demand Online trial is aimed at testing out authentication technology which asks pay-TV subscribers to identify themselves before allowing access to online content at sites such as Comcast.net.
In an interview Tuesday, Quincy Smith, chief executive of CBS Interactive said the company thinks of this deal as a way to extend the broadcast universe online by marrying the reach and frequency of the broadcast business with the ROI metrics of the online world. "This is a way to extend the TV economics online. We really pride ourselves on being a broadcast company, some peers will say they are a collection of cable networks, we lead with broadcast." He said some of the programming would be exclusive to the trial but declined to say which shows might land at the Comcast trial that weren't already available at CBS' own service TV.com. CBS already provides programming to Comcast's Video On Demand service.
Smith outlined the challenges moving ahead, describing CBS's own March Madness On Demand as a good model for the trial since March Madness carries a very similar ad load both on air and online. "There are three steps; it has to work seamlessly it has to be a single cookie and then don't bother me again. The second hurdle is Nielsen, the third party referee, or whoever gets anointed has to do a good job. The third step is the co-ordination of buying agencies. A lot of companies have one agency do on air buying and another do online. That's a puzzle we'll have to figure out."
The hope of the companies involved in the cross-industry TV Everywhere initiative is to gain a C3 accreditation from Nielsen. In order for that to happen, whatever ads broadcast on TV would have to remain the same online. That is a significant hurdle to cross.
Separately, Comcast has not defined how long the trial would last, though Smith said he expected it would be at least five months for the data from the new authentication technology to emerge and be evaluated.
With Fox, NBC and ABC already pursuing a non-authentication strategy through online service Hulu it remains to be seen how far the Comcast plan can go, given the cable systems operators lack of a national footprint. One hope among the partners is that if Comcast can come up with a player that operates the authentication technology that it can be used anywhere around the web from Google's Youtube to Hulu.