"The next few years will be critical," said Screen Digest analyst Arash Amel.
According to the report, the combined dominance of the leading broadcaster-supported platforms will drive the total ad-supported model for the distribution of online entertainment programming, news, sports and events in the U.S. to more than $1.45 billion in revenues by 2013.
"With better targeting and increased ad inventory, online TV services could be generating per-viewer revenues comparable to an average TV broadcast viewing in as little as three years," said Amel.
However, based on the current online ad strategies implemented, it will account for 2.2% of all U.S. TV ad revenue by 2013, and surely will not be generating enough revenue to offset the $2 billion Amel expects total U.S. TV advertising to have declined during that period.
Meanwhile, third-party platforms like YouTube, Joost and other portals -- which have no direct vertical affiliation with major rights holders, nor direct access to premium content rights -- will struggle to aggregate ad-supported movies and TV shows, the report warns.
As a result, third-party ad-supported video platforms may have to either diversify into new forms of their own original programming, exit the content aggregation business and offer technology and advertising solutions to the content owners' and broadcasters' own services, or settle on the low-margin business of becoming affiliates of the player-platforms distributed by the content rights holders themselves.
Overall, the online Web-based TV services of the four major U.S. TV networks -- ABC Full Episode Player, CBS Audience Network, NBC.com and Fox.com -- together with Hulu, the joint venture between NBC Universal, News Corporation (and more recently Disney), accounted for a combined 53% of an ad-supported US online TV market that generated $448m in revenues last year.
According to Amel, the networks have proven their ability to drive audiences to online TV replay services from prime-time schedules, which accounts for the market dominance.
This multiplatform approach has been, and will remain, very important to the future relevance of broadcasters to younger demographics and retaining prime position in the online TV space.
The key, according to Amel, will be to create an online platform model that retains control of the content while distributing it widely, and meets the audience's changing demands for TV anytime, anywhere.
"A successful online entertainment distribution business model is about establishing and maintaining interest in trusted brands and syndicated services that go hand-in-hand with the content, often free at the point of audience consumption," Amel concludes.
Notably, while Amel is obviously bullish on free content, the paid market -- driven by the respective hardware ecosystems of various service providers, and high-value sports events -- will grow by 67% to $1.33 billion by 2013.