Peter Kafka

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Now Things Get Interesting: CBS Joins Comcast’s Web TV Trial

Yet another addition to the growing list of programmers signing on to Comcast’s “On Demand Online”: CBS will join the cable provider’s trial program, which will allow subscribers to get Web access to shows they get on TV.

CBS (CBS) will join previously announced partners Time Warner (TWX), which is offering up programming from its Turner channels and HBO; Liberty Media’s Starz; and smaller players like Scripps, Rainbow and A&E. The twist is that CBS is the only broadcaster to sign up for the trial.

I noted that this was in the works last month, and it makes plenty of sense: For one thing, CBS would like to tie up with Comcast (CMCSA) as a way to extract “retransmission fees” from the cable company for the rights to carry its programming, which it currently doesn’t get paid for. The broadcaster also needs a big ally, as its broadcast competitors at GE’s (GE) NBC, News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox and Disney’s (DIS) ABC have already tied up with Hulu.

Comcast’s trial program, which is supposed to start this month and which parallels plans being promoted throughout the cable industry, is in many ways a response to Hulu, which has unnerved the pay TV business. The industry is worried about the specter of “cable cutters” who dump their cable TV subscriptions and watch free Web TV instead. So it’s trying to convince subscribers that if they keep paying up, they’ll get to see whatever they want online, legally.

CBS, meanwhile, passed on the chance to join with Hulu early on, and has since been complaining that the joint venture’s business terms undermine broadcasters’ chances of making real money on the Web.

CBS and Comcast aren’t talking about what the economics of this tie-up look like, but given that it’s a trial, it’s likely there isn’t much to talk about yet. But ultimately, CBS imagines a world where cable companies pay it for the right to put its shows on the Web and where it can charge Internet advertisers the same rates it gets for on-air TV.

That’s a long way off, but this is a start. “This is about extending the economics of the television market to an already independent, healthy online market,” says CBS digital boss Quincy Smith.

UPDATE:  Comcast has a few more programmers on board. In addition to Scripps, A&E and Rainbow, which I’ve written about before, but which have not been formally announced, Comcast is bringing in BBC and MGM Impact, a VOD channel it runs with MGM.

Here’s the release.

CBS TO PARTICIPATE IN COMCAST’S ON DEMAND ONLINE ?NATIONWIDE TRIAL

As the First Broadcaster To Participate, CBS Agrees to Test Standards and Principles for
“TV Everywhere” Model

NEW YORK and PHILADELPHIA, July 14, 2009–CBS Corporation (NYSE:  CBS.A) and Comcast Corporation (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) announced today that CBS is the first broadcast network to participate in Comcast’s technical trial of On Demand Online. The new service will significantly expand the number of top-rated TV shows available online and across platforms at no additional charge to Comcast’s cable customers while delivering increased advertising value to content owners. During the course of the trial, CBS plans to test various types of current and library content.

“CBS and Comcast share the same vision of giving consumers more–more content, in more places,” said Matt Bond, Executive Vice President of Content Acquisition, Comcast Cable. “On Demand Online is a major step in extending consumers’ television experiences online, and ultimately across platforms by giving any television network, including top brands like CBS, the ability to make their content available on the Web.”

“CBS is very supportive of initiatives that help extend our content to new platforms in such a way that we gain new audiences and additional value for our advertisers,” said Quincy Smith, Chief Executive Officer, CBS Interactive. “Comcast is already a trusted platform to distribute CBS content on air as well as on demand; expanding this relationship online is a logical step. In addition, CBS’s strategy has always been about open, non-exclusive distribution of our content in a consumer friendly way, which is a core tenant of TV Everywhere and On Demand Online.”

CBS’s participation in Comcast’s technical trial comes on the heels of last month’s joint announcement between Time Warner Inc. and Comcast which introduced a set of principles called “TV Everywhere.” Developed by the two companies, the principles are designed to serve as a framework to facilitate deployment of online television content in a way that is consumer friendly and pro-competitive.

Comcast will begin its technical trial of On Demand Online with approximately 5,000 customers from across the U.S. in the coming weeks–the first national trial of its kind. A major focus of the trial is to test Comcast’s new “authentication” technology, which will allow Comcast customers to receive the same content online for free that they subscribe to on TV. The service will utilize a simple log-on system for streaming content and, in the future, will allow for download content to go. The On Demand Online service will roll-out in phases, adding new features, functionality and content over time to provide consumers with a new way to watch television.

On Demand Online is part of Comcast’s Project Infinity, the company’s long-term vision to give customers an ever growing amount of video content on multiple platforms, whenever they want.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work