Critics Shrug at New Media

Digital news takes a backseat at Television Critics Association gathering

If multiplatform news breaks in a roomful of TV critics, does it make a sound? Only if your network devotes an entire panel to broadband programming that includes a “buddy comedy” about a pair of testicles.

At the Television Critics Association (TCA) gathering that kicked off last week in Pasadena, Calif., Comedy Central unveiled the testicular comedy Baxter & McGuire as one of 20 shows in development for Comedy's broadband channel, MotherLoad. But apart from Comedy's decidedly sophomoric presentation, new-media initiatives generally failed to impress a crowd that was clamoring to ask Oxygen star Shannon Doherty why she is so widely reviled.

After a spring upfront season abuzz with the advertising possibilities of broadband and wireless, multiplatform news yielded to meat-and-potatoes programming at the TCA confab. Even as the networks touted new digital efforts, their executives largely tempered their enthusiasm for—and occasionally dismissed outright—emerging platforms.

E! Networks President/CEO Ted Harbert's presentation detailed plans for an August relaunch of the E! Online Website, which will feature several embedded broadband video players, a tenfold increase in celebrity photos and a new gossip column.

But he gamely stepped aside to give critics an unobstructed view of Nick Carter, the former Backstreet Boy and star of new E! reality show House of Carters.

MTV Networks announced a new broadband site for vintage-series haven TV Land (see Now Streaming, below). But critics were more interested in Mr. T, star of TV Land's new reality series I Pity the Fool, and why he wasn't wearing his trademark gold chains.

After fixating initially on the anatomical aspects of Baxter & McGuire, critics finally ventured questions about the broadband medium itself. “What cable was to broadcast television 15 years ago, broadband is to television now,” said Lauren Corrao, Comedy's executive VP, original programming and development.

Lou Wallach, Comedy's senior VP, original programming and development, noted that short, inexpensively produced broadband videos “play into that kind of viral user-generated kind of quality and feel of the form itself.”

To be sure, critics were never the target audience for the networks' recent digital puffery. One network marketing executive said her channel considered scrapping its digital announcements for fear they'd be ignored. But some executives seemed downright disparaging of the new-media hype.

Speaking on a panel with his channel's new hire, former CBS anchor Dan Rather, HDNet founder Mark Cuban lamented the industry's lack of focus on traditional media thanks to “a bad case of Internet- and broadband-itis.”

HBO Chairman/CEO Chris Albrecht reaffirmed the premium cable network's commitment to good old linear TV with a swipe at the new platforms.

“You won't be seeing HBO throwing new episodes up on iPod,” he said, taking pains to point out that HBO's subscriber-based, DVD-supplemented business model made such extensions unnecessary—even as HBO Mobile, in partnership with Cingular Wireless, launched a series of original, mobile-phone mini-episodes of its Entourage (see Now Streaming).

Bullish behind the scenes

In interviews outside the presentations, however, executives were more bullish about digital platforms and the added exposure they have provided for the networks' linear-TV content.

Discovery Networks President Billy Campbell said this year's cable upfront is the first in which advertisers have been primarily interested in his company's digital platforms. Discovery recently reached a broadband-only deal with an automotive advertiser.

Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for Disney Channel Worldwide, lauded Disney's new broadband player as a new programming window. The site drew 37.7 million unique visitors to the site in its first month, up 42% from last year, and, in at least one case, helped boost viewership on the linear channel with a streamed episode of teen-twin comedy The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. The TV replay that evening earned more viewers than the 11 other episodes that ran in a series marathon that day.

Comedy's Wallach says he was “thrilled and validated” by the reaction that his Mother­Load panel got from critics. It was a way of telling critics, “Hey, we're doing both of these things [linear and broadband content],” he says, adding, “I figured if I was doing them, then [critics] better be writing about them. And their readers should know about them.”


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