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Big Networks Differ On Best Use Of 'Third Screen'

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The growing availability of digital content on broadcasters' Web sites may be the most significant trend in TV programming this season. Here's the twist: In an industry often known for its copycatting, the major networks are approaching the so-called "third screen" from surprisingly different angles.

In what may be the most experimental embrace of new media, ABC is streaming full episodes—ad-based and free through May and June—of four dramas: Lost, Desperate Housewives, Alias and the now-pulled Commander in Chief. CBS is aggressively pursuing a digital strategy, too. Last week, the network launched innertube, an ad-based broadband channel featuring original Web exclusives, as well as content linked to shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race. Earlier this season, NBC said it would film original content of The Office to be streamed as unique Webisodes over the summer. Meanwhile, Fox's original content is limited to series promos as well as an American Idol talk show.

ABC is widely recognized as the industry leader in presenting digital content, having been the first network last fall to offer fee-based video downloads through Apple's iTunes of Lost and Desperate Housewives. Continuing to forge new ground with its free streaming of series this spring, the network hopes to raise standards for the consumer experience, maximizing the size and encoding quality of its video streams, and upping the bandwidth needed to deliver that video. "I think the question is, 'How do you do it right?'" said Albert Cheng, evp of digital media for the Disney/ABC Television Group. "If it's a horrible experience, users won't come back."

Following CBS' huge success in streaming NCAA March Madness, the network's launch of innertube last week signaled a major commitment to digital content. But while ABC is focused on the quality of its presentation, CBS seems in pursuit of quantity. "What we want to do is show the strength and power of CBS Corp., and utilize all the different units within the brand—and within the larger company," said Brinley Turner, vp of CBS Digital Entertainment and general manager of CBS.com.

Unlike ABC, CBS has yet to offer complete episodes of its programming. That fact underscores some of the hurdles broadcasters continue to face in their pursuit of digital strategies. Perhaps the most significant hurdle concerns the potential loss of revenue for stations when networks stream series on the Web—and how stations should be compensated for that loss. The other major obstacle revolves around content ownership rights, especially when they fall outside a broadcaster's parent company, as does CBS' Two and a Half Men, for example, which is produced by Warner Bros.

Aware of the rights difficulties, NBC made it a point to go to the producers of all its fall pilots that were produced in-house—meaning NBCU TV—to submit plans that included digital elements. "What we're trying to do is instill what we call a 'digital DNA' in these shows," said Jeff Gaspin, NBCU's president of cable entertainment and digital content.

As broadcasters hone their digital strategies, advertisers remain hopeful that the upside to new-media platforms will be robust. "People are opting into these formats," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, evp of Starcom Entertainment. "And you're reaching those people at a time when they're fully engaged, so you have their full attention. That's a big plus for advertisers."