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More Join TV Web Party

9/05/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications officially signaled their interest in offering free TV shows online to paying video subscribers — and AT&T quietly initiated a beta test of its own — but major details remain fuzzy for these so-called authentication services.

The latest “TV Everywhere” trials come soon after Comcast began testing an on-demand Internet TV service in July with two dozen networks, and each of the distributors has been eager to claim leadership on the concept.

Time Warner Cable expects to start testing TV Everywhere with about 5,000 subscribers before the end of the year, after a round of technical trials. The No. 2 operator has lined up content partners including Time Warner Inc.'s TBS, TNT and HBO; CBS; NBC Universal's Syfy; BBC America; Rainbow Media's AMC, WE TV, IFC and Sundance Channel; Discovery Communications; and Smithsonian Channel.

“TV Everywhere is an all-around win for those of us who love television,” Time Warner Cable chairman, president and CEO Glenn Britt said in a statement. “It will give our customers more control over content and allow them greater access to programs they are already paying for, while enhancing the distributors' and networks' robust business model that encourages the creation of great content.”

Verizon, meanwhile, has teamed with Time Warner Inc. for the telco's initial test run of FiOS TV Online. The service at first offers content from Time Warner's TNT and TBS networks, available to FiOS TV and Internet subscribers over any broadband connection.

And AT&T, in the last few weeks, launched the beta version of a video portal that serves up free TV shows and movies to any Internet user — and promises even more to U-verse TV customers — with content from more than a dozen programming partners.

The AT&T Entertainment site (http://entertainment.att.net/tv) says U-verse TV customers can gain access to “bonus content” if they log in but doesn't spell out what that extra content is.

The free section of the site offers shows and movies from CBS; ABC and ABC Family; NBC and NBC Universal's USA, Bravo, Syfy and CNBC; MTV Networks' MTV and VH1; Lionsgate; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Universal Studios; PBS; and Current TV. The site also lists Hulu, the joint venture of NBC, The Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., as a partner.

In an e-mailed statement, AT&T said: “We have started a soft launch of the AT&T Entertainment site. This site will feature free online content available to any consumer. We're finalizing a few final elements, and we'll share more details on our official launch soon.”

The company added, “This site is another step forward for our three-screen strategy to provide more content to more customers across any device.”

Other pay TV providers, including DirecTV, are expected to hop on the TV Everywhere bandwagon too.

“When we first announced the 'TV Everywhere' initiative, we hoped others in the industry would soon sign on to provide consumers with more on-demand television content over all platforms including broadband,” Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeff Bewkes said in a statement.

Bewkes noted that the TV Everywhere concept began with a technical trial between HBO and Time Warner Cable in Milwaukee in January 2008. That test “proved TV Everywhere is more than just a concept and that consumers gravitate to popular shows on-demand regardless of the platform,” he said.

Unlike the current iteration of Comcast's On Demand Online service — which is available only over the MSO's own network and Fancast and Comcast.net — both Time Warner Cable and FiOS TV Online will let customers access the online programming at the networks' Web sites. Comcast has pledged that it will eventually extend the service to let subscribers log in at partners' sites, as has AT&T.

Otherwise, however, details remain sketchy.

In Time Warner Cable's implementation of TV Everywhere, video subscribers will be able to access content online on the networks' Web sites as well as Time Warner Cable's own Web properties, such as Timewarnercable.com or the Road Runner portal, director of public relations Justin Venech said.

Exactly which shows and how much content will be available is yet to be determined. Time Warner Cable said programming offered through the TV Everywhere trials will include many shows currently unavailable online and others that will be made available on the Internet more quickly following their original airdates than they are currently.

Venech said the networks will decide which shows and how much content they'll offer through the test. He declined to provide technical details of the MSO's TV Everywhere trial. For now, the company is working to include other networks and said it expects to “expand TV Everywhere to more customers rapidly.”

Verizon's trial, which started in August, currently involves about 500 FiOS TV customers and will scale up over the next few months, according to spokeswoman Heather Wilner. She said while initially the content is accessible via the programmer sites, FiOS TV Online could be available through Verizon sites as well.

“Part of what we're doing is figuring out where consumers want to go to get their content,” Wilner said.

Trial participants will be able to watch TV shows on their PCs using any broadband connection, after logging on using their Verizon Online user names and passwords.

September