Even as their supply of new programs dwindles during the months-long writers' strike, major TV networks continue to try to capture online viewers.
Streaming free full-length episodes on their own websites was just the beginning. Episodes from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are showing up on an assortment of sites, from big destinations such as AOL to newcomers Veoh and MeeVee.
Signs are that time spent watching video — not just snacks à la YouTube, but full episodes — is increasing. The number of broadband users who watched full shows online weekly doubled in 2007 from 8% to 16%, says market research firm Horowitz Associates.
Embracing the Web is "an acknowledgement that this is real (and networks) have a business model and can monetize it and make it part of their growth," Howard Horowitz says.
By giving consumers online access, networks have learned they can reinforce viewer devotion. "This is mostly driven by TV audiences who missed (an episode) and want to watch it on their computer," says Shelly Palmer, author of Television Disrupted: The Transition From Network to Networked TV. "I don't think NBC or ABC is caring where you watch as long as they can count on you."
Traffic on Veoh.com, which recently sealed a deal to add MTV to an array of CBS, Fox and NBC series, rose 24% during the last three months of 2007; 40% comes during traditional TV prime-time hours, says Veoh's Dmitry Shapiro. "That is a very telling and important statistic. It's the same content they can find on TV, but they feel they have more control."
Traffic tracking firm ComScore found online viewers watched an average 3¼ hours in November, 29% more than January 2007, though YouTube and MySpace dominate, says analyst Andrew Lipsman.
A growing number of sites, including MeeVee, seek to not only connect viewers with full episodes but also offer TiVo-style recommendations and direct them to offline diversions.
"There is a lot of content out there," says Amy Banse of Comcast, which just started Fancast.com with CBS, NBC and Fox shows, among others. "Some of it lives in movie theaters, some on television, some in video on demand and some on the Internet, but it's hard to find. We wanted to create a tool (for) people to find what they are looking for regardless of platform or screen."
Any traffic caused by strike-dissatisfied viewers accelerates the long-term move to online, says Alex Patriquin of Web analysis firm Compete. "The race to become the destination for TV episodes online is very much an emerging market."
•A look at some of the top sites on the Web
Description:Online since last summer but formally announced last week by cable giant Comcast, Fancast has more than 3,000 hours of shows, including Jericho (CBS), Bones (Fox) and 30 Rock (NBC), as well as Bravo and Sci Fi programs. Can be personalized for your cable or satellite networks.
Experience:TV series have their own home pages with episode guides; the CBS Jericho page, for example, tells you there are 22 episodes on Fancast and several will air on Universal HD next week, and it links to areas on Amazon Unbox, iTunes and NetFlix. A short ad runs before the episode begins. Enlarged to full-screen, the video gets slightly fuzzier. A neat "Six Degrees" function suggests other shows that Jericho actors appeared in and that have similar themes.