NBC Offers Free VOD, Cox Will Disable Fast-Forward Button

NBC said Monday it would join ABC in offering prime-time series free on VOD. It's part of a test in which the same ads from the "live" broadcast will run in each episode, but won't be skipped as the fast-forward button is disabled.

The test will run through next summer on the Cox cable system in and around Orange County, part of the Los Angeles DMA. ABC and Cox reached a deal last spring; an agreement with NBC was inked this summer.

Episodes of the shows--four from ABC and five from NBC--will be available for viewing the day after they air on the respective networks and accessible for the next 28 days. In addition to ads from the "live" broadcast remaining, two additional spots will be inserted at the beginning (also not subject to ad-zapping)--one from Cox and the other from each network's respective owned-and-operated L.A. station.

A Cox rep said that over the next several months, the parties hope to experiment with dynamic ad insertion; for example, a spot for a movie that can be updated during an episode's 28-day shelf life to include new content, such as a critic's opinion or early box success. Geo-targeting is also on the agenda, where different spots may be customized for various ZIP-codes.

Cox has some 280,000 customers in the area where the test is taking place. A subset with digital cable will be able to view the shows, although Cox would not detail how many subscribers that entails.

The nine series can be accessed within a video-on-demand section under a "My Primetime" moniker. All new episodes of the shows for the 2007-08 season will be available as part of the initiative, extending the test through next summer--28 days after each show's season finale.

The two networks appear to be taking a decidedly different tack with what they're offering.

ABC is making big hits "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" available, as well as "Ugly Betty." NBC may be more interested in using the trial to gauge whether free VOD can give a so-so performer a boost. It's offering critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights," as well as new series "Bionic Woman" and "Life" and the returning "Las Vegas." The Cox rep said that while the deals can be re-negotiated, so far they only cover those nine shows--raising the question of whether NBC would look for an alteration if its new shows prove to be early flops and are later canceled.

While the test is groundbreaking in the VOD arena--networks have resisted making their series available free if fast-forwarding is permitted--on another level, it's less of a watershed. Full episodes of all nine series are available on the networks' respective Web sites on-demand and with ad-skipping blocked.

Also, the shows can still be recorded via DVRs and then fast-forwarded.

Still, a cable operator agreeing to disable any fast-forward functionality is new territory as they aggressively market high-end technology, such as new waves of DVRs, hoping to persuade customers to upgrade and pay more.

Cox and other MSOs have looked for some time to encourage broadcast networks to dive into free VOD, figuring that if they can offer robust video-on-demand libraries, they can gain a leg up on satellite competition. Striking back, DirecTV has promised to launch a VOD platform by year's end with superior search functionality.

Broadcasters have dipped a toe into VOD, but charged 99 cents per episode. Cable networks--although still exploring business models--have been more aggressive with their programming.

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