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TV Masters Illuminate Content Distribution

by Walter Schoenknecht~ April 26, 2006


Key figures in the emerging content distribution environment collaborated to make sense of the shifting landscape at yesterday's NAB2006 Television Masters luncheon. The event was entitled, "New Distribution Pipelines: Turning TV Content Into Revenue."

The keynote address, delivered by Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, focused the necessity of change to maximize opportunity.

"Our industry is in the midst of a seismic shift," Sweeney said.

Citing an earlier era when cable and home video first threatened broadcasters, Sweeney cautioned the audience against "old thinking."

"Take heart, we have successfully overcome it in the past. We adjusted to the changing reality to reclaim our viewers," she said.

Sweeney said ABC made history when it agreed to make its content available on Apple's iTunes service. Learning from the mistakes of the music industry, the network understood that this distribution route would not cannibalize its content's value, but rather enhance it.

"iTunes created a new revenue stream for our content," Sweeney said.

Disney will continue to test and experiment in an effort to discern viewers' preferences, Sweeney said. She described a planned project during May and June in which episodes of popular ABC programs will be offered as free streams - including three required-viewing ad breaks.

"These emerging platforms aren't 'alternate,' they're additive," she said.

Sweeney acknowledged that the path from traditional broadcasting to today's divergent distribution was a challenging one.

"We don't have all of the answers, but we're committed to working with our affiliates for the answers," she said. "I like the fact that old media is leading the way into the future."

In the lively panel discussion that followed Sweeney's address, moderator Tony Kern of Deloitte & Touche led industry luminaries through the maze of issues facing both networks and affiliates.

Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, advocated experimenting with different ingredients, methods and technologies. "We're basically trying everything," he said.

Kramer described CBS' experiment with free streams of its 2006 March Madness broadcast. While the 2005 event, which required viewers to pay, drew an audience of 25,000, this year's Webcast was served to five million viewers, 300,000 of whom signed on the first 15 minutes of the telecast.

Kramer felt the CBS broadcast audience hadn't been compromised by the move. "Who wouldn't rather be watching at home on a 50-inch plasma?" he asked. Instead, the Web feeds reached viewers who would otherwise have missed out on the network telecast, and the numbers bore out that hypothesis, revealing the highest ratings for that event in eight years.


Ric Harris, who heads NBC Universal's digital media unit, argued that the goal of distributing network-owned content was only part of the story.

"I think that's one piece of it, but if that's all we focus on, we missed the boat." Integrating "user-generated" content, a current hot topic, is among many other content opportunities, according to Harris.

Hearst-Argyle digital media mogul Terry Mackin stressed the view was not necessarily a network-centric one. "Local is where we're looking for opportunities to build new businesses," he said.

Susana Schuler, Raycom Media's news boss, reminded attendees that the content available to them includes local news as well - something each local affiliate is uniquely well-positioned to deliver.

"We are so good at local," she said. "You just have to get out there."

"Give these platforms equal importance to your broadcast signal," Schuler advised affiliates. "These platforms give local news operations a chance to open up your process" to nontraditional sources such as 'citizen reporters.'"

© 2006 NAB