TV Online: A Glimpse of the Future at the 'Upfronts'

It is the biggest week in network television, yet television must share the spotlight.

It is "upfront" week, the time each year when ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and others preview their shows for the new fall season. The name comes from the goal: to dazzle advertisers and secure "upfront" as big a chunk as possible of the $9 billion they will commit to ads for the fall lineups.

While the upfronts always answer what the networks plan to put on television, the question that got more attention than ever at this year's previews was where else the programs would show up.

The growing popularity of video on venues other than television has the networks rolling out major initiatives this week involving programming on the Internet, cell phones and hand-held video devices.

CBS has launched its Interactive Audience Network, which will make its shows available for free on 10 Web sites including AOL, Microsoft Networks and Joost, a new video site started by the people behind Kazaa and Skype. When he revealed this plan last month, CBS President Leslie Moonves boasted that CBS product would be "the most widely distributed professional content online."

NBC Universal makes a similar claim for its new joint venture with News Corp., the parent company of the Fox network: an Internet video site temporarily dubbed NewSite. The two broadcasters signed up six big Web distribution partners including Comcast, Yahoo and CNET for NewSite. They will also provide content. NBC Universal chief digital officer George Kliavkoff says this video portal will "reach in excess of 98 percent of the unique users on the Internet every month." This week, NBC confirmed the site would launch in the summer. It also announced that a "fully immersive" digital version of its hit "The Office" would debut in the fall alongside a Web exclusive series called "Coastal Dreams."

ABC unveiled "ABC Start Here" this week — a big marketing campaign aimed at guiding consumers to ABC programming on a variety of platforms, such as on-air, online or via mobile connection. "It's really a messaging and navigation system" said Michael Benson, executive vice president for marketing at ABC Entertainment, designed to "help manage all the [ABC] content so consumers can find things more easily," whatever video venue they are using. The network also announced a deal with Sprint that would allow subscribers to watch ABC shows on their cell phones. Popular episodes will be available on demand the day after they air or users will be able to access continuous scheduled programming on special mobile channels.

Why this big push to reach Web video viewers? The answer is big numbers. In January alone, 123 million people downloaded or streamed video, says Internet research firm comScore, Inc. And in 2006, advertisers spent nearly $17 billion on the Internet, the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimated, a 34 percent increase over 2005.

"More and more people have high speed Internet access and as that happens, they get more comfortable watching online video," said Michael Burgi, editor of MediaWeek. "People are going to the Internet to be entertained and you generally see an erosion of TV viewership. The networks are waking up to the reality that they need to have their programs in the places where people are showing up."

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