It's All About TV After All

Broadcast networks talk new media but pitch the original platform
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Despite buzz promising a broadband feast at this year's upfronts, TV programming was the main course at the broadcast networks' presentations last week. Although network executives sought to attract advertisers with their digital offerings, they stressed that traditional programming for TV was still central to their mission.

Unlike the cable networks, which were more aggressive about courting their more targeted audiences with multi­platform content during their upfronts, the broadcast networks were decidedly ambivalent about how much to emphasize digital development.

“You can have all the different lipstick-sodes you want,” ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson told reporters. “But if the shows aren't good, no one's going to watch them.”

And after touting last fall's watershed iTunes deal and her network's broadband streaming experiment at industry panels throughout the year, Disney-ABC TV Group President Anne Sweeney won hearty laughs with a cheeky parody of her own bullishness.

Unveiling a “new technology” that promises “to dominate the home-entertainment network,” Sweeney peeled away a dark sheet to reveal an early-model TV set.

Still, she maintained that “there is no other network better equipped to navigate the changes of our industry than ABC,” and noted that the network had garnered more than 2 million hits for its broadband site of streaming episodes in its first two weeks.

CBS was equally bipolar. Having announced the details of the network's broadband site Innertube two weeks before the upfronts, CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves told advertisers that, “at the end of the day, 95%-plus of your money will come from that [broadcast] schedule.”

And yet, at the presentation, Moonves and CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler talked up digital derivations of that schedule, including “The D Story,” a cross-platform storyline extension of new drama Jericho.

NBC also sought to cover its bases on both fronts. After a lengthy presentation of its new dramas from Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker took the stage to explain, finally, just what the network meant by its new “TV 360” slogan.

But while boasting of more than 100 ideas, including a broad­band comedy channel and a “First Look” broadband site to stream episodes of its series before they air on TV, Zucker seemed subdued, if not downright apologetic, in making the announcements.

“We're all grappling with the connected consumer,” he said, adding that “it is daunting, to say the least, for all of us.”

To advertisers, he promised, “We want to be your digital partner.”

Fox gave more general numbers and graphs than specifics on the content of its digital initiatives. Fox Interactive Media President Ross Levinsohn said more than 75 million visitors spent some 11 million minutes on the company's “network” of Web sites each month (although he didn't say how much of that News Corp.'s MySpace accounted for).

The networks' ambivalence is understandable. Although analysts have predicted that the networks could offset a flat-to-slightly-off upfront market with digital content, it's unclear whether such offerings will represent added value or replace money that had gone previously to traditional TV.

A recent report from Merrill Lynch concluded that, “given the nascent nature of many digital offerings from the major TV networks, we do not expect significant revenue.”

Unlike the content and programming that many cable networks are developing exclusively for various digital platforms, what the broadcast networks unveiled last week were largely extensions of their TV programming.

For example, NBC introduced an online comic book for its new drama Heroes; MyNetworkTV touted 3,000 online video-clip extras for its telenovelas; The CW said its “Metropolis Mix” on its Web site will feature exclusive video of musical performances from The WB holdover Smallville; and Fox will accept online video submissions for its upcoming Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg reality series On the Lot.

“The discussions with virtually every client are about how we take the popularity of the content generated by the broad-based network to give them marketing extensions on other platforms,” said Jon Nesvig, Fox Broadcasting president of sales. “The vast majority of money is going to the broadcast platform.”

Extensions of network content

Former WB CEO Jordan Levin says that TV programming is more central to a broadcast network's brand than that of a cable network. “What the broadcast networks are pushing,” he says, “is extensions of the content whose primary window is the broadcast network.”

Levin now heads up Generate, a new development and talent-management firm devoted to producing multiplatform content. The company has eight broadband series in development at MTV Networks and is also looking to make deals with broadcast networks.

“There's no primacy at MTV Networks—television versus broadband,” Levin says. “You get the sense at some of the broadcast networks it's about the broadcast network first. It's a trickle-down effect with some of these other platforms.”

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