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TCA '09: Programmers, Advertisers Struggle to Cash In on ‘Digital Playground’

1/14/2009 6:24 AM Eastern

Los Angeles—There’s still a race on to figure out how to monetize entertainment on the Internet before the platform has been so embraced that viewers are creating their own viewing schedules online instead of on ad-supported broadcast, according to executives participating on digital streaming panel at the Television Critics Association meeting.

Currently, the executives said, half of the people viewing on the Web are still going there to catch up on broadcast series, and the other half are seeking out original content. And the catch-up isn’t limited to contemporary shows.

Karin Gilford, senior vice president, Fancast and online entertainment for Comcast Interactive Media, said on a recent weekend, the 1950s series Have Gun, Will Travel with Richard Boone spiked to the top in usage based on some program packaging the Web site did.

Andy Forsell, senior vice president of content acquisition and distribution for Hulu, added his site expected series such as critical favorite Arrested Development to be a to draw for online viewers, but one of the consistent Top 4 streams is the Jan-Michael Vincent series from the 1980s, Airwolf.

People like to surf the classic titles to find great TV, like Hill Street Blues, he concluded.

Despite the demonstrated interest in reruns, Web content developers said they are investing in more original content, including series, as well as experimenting with ad models for that content in the next few years. Developers are still not clear on the ad model to embrace, said Michael Hayes, executive vice president and managing director of Digital Interactive, citing research that 67% of viewers would accept Web streaming with ads, while 30% want no ads at all.

Craig Hunegs, executive vice president, business management for Warner Bros. Television Group, noted his company is experimenting with building partnerships with advertisers such as retailer H&M, which sponsors the Web series Sorority Girls. He added his company is using the Web to develop new shows, adding that Warner Bros. has attracted interest for cable and broadcast networks for online series, including Sorority Girls, Children’s Hospital and Rockville.

Andrew Steele, creative director of www.funnyordie.com, called the Web “a developmental playground,” noting it was once believed that viewers’ attention spans decreased with the size of the screen. But his site recently offered a 16-minute film that “did fantastic and we’ve moved up to working with HBO” on a Flight of the Conchords Web show.

Despite the low pay for work on the Web, performers are lured there by the creative freedom they find in the emerging platform. Speed to market is also a factor, said Steele. For instance, Hairspray director Adam Shankman recently created Prop. 8 – The Musical, a short film starring Jack Black, about the California ballot proposition banning gay marriages. Steele said the director wrote the musical on a Thursday, filmed it on the weekend and it was posted on the funnyordie site the following Tuesday.

“You can’t overestimate the value to artists of working with complete creative freedom,” said Hunegs, adding that Web site operators want original, character-driven pieces similar to those that work on TV, not “one-offs.” He also said his site anticipates four or five “big projects” this year.

A critic suggested that international piracy might be an off-shoot of “geoblocking,” which keeps potential viewers in other countries from accessing TV sites here in the U.S. The Web executives said delays in the release of U.S. content to other countries are shrinking, so piracy should shrink, too. Executives are hopeful of crafting advertising agreements that cross borders, but that hasn’t happened yet, noted Hunegs.

September