MLB Joins Torrent Of Streaming TV Content

Here's a question with a remarkable answer: What premium TV content isn't available somewhere on the Web - in full, free and legally?

Save "American Idol" -- and how long will its producers resist? -- such holdouts among TV-exclusive content is now tough to find.

The dominoes in online video are falling faster than Michael Phelps. The latest and somewhat surprising example is Major League Baseball, which in a deal earlier this month gave ESPN the rights to stream three games a week live on its service. That follows the NFL reaching a deal with NBC to do the same with that network's prime-time games, starting with the high-profile season debut Thursday.

Just 35 days ago, both leagues would have seemed among the least likely candidates to allow their content to go live online gratis. Notably more aggressive in new-media experimentation, the NBA started doing it last season, including the playoffs.

But MLB, while also a trailblazer in some Web operations, has a subscription service for its games and seemed determined to keep charging for all of them. And the NFL is more protective of when, where and how its content is distributed than just about anyone.



To be sure, for the NFL so far it's still a limited number of games (they'll also be available on the NFL site).  Same for baseball with ESPN. And while the NBC games will be widely available, the ESPN streams will be limited to perhaps 24 million homes, along with college campuses. Some prominent broadband providers don't have an agreement to offer them.

But the precedent, particularly the NFL involvement, is telling.  In just two-and-a-half years, since ABC broke the ice by offering free shows on its site -- the "free" does of course come with a broadband subscription -- consumers have received more and more good news about chances to access prime content online.

 Here's just a partial look at some of the walls tumbling:

·       It started with "Desperate Housewives" on, as Disney's Bob Iger gave the green light to change TV history once again, only months after doing so by first selling episodes on iTunes.

·       Other networks followed ABC within months, by making their hits available.

·       TNT launched "The Closer" on its site, showing that some cable networks had little compunction about essentially offering the same content for free that cable operators charge for. (Was it drafty in the room at Time Warner, since Turner and Time Warner Cable shared a corporate parent?)

·       NBC, which had waited to stream "The Office" until it was sold into syndication, began doing so last season.

·       TBS started offering a smattering of "Seinfeld" episodes on -- an older show, but one that still has value in syndication.

·       MSNBC spent this past winter's Obama-Clinton primary season simulcasting its coverage on key nights. 

·       Viacom, which is still fighting YouTube about allowing clips from programming like "The Daily Show" to make it onto the Google-owned site, began offering full episodes of the Comedy Central show on the Web.

·       2007-08 broadcast season: Practically the entire top-25 series were free on-demand online. "Idol" and ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" were exceptions.

Networks, studios and now sports rights holders have all apparently adopted the philosophy that, while the train may not have fully left the station, it's critical to be on it when it does. In other words, while what was once called the "small screen" (now that arguably means a laptop or iPod) may continue to be the epicenter of home entertainment for the extended near-future (and HD may retain viewers beyond that), mass audience migration to online streaming -- live and on-demand -- is inevitable.

Of course, that's particularly true for the group who, if not already, will be tomorrow's advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demo. Look at CW's "Gossip Girl" last spring. After making the episodes available on its Web site, the CW decided the so-called train had pulled away from the station a bit too fast. And it took the series off the Web.

While broadcast and basic cable are moving at light speed into streaming, pay channels HBO and Showtime are unsurprisingly holding back. Still, their shows can be found on those illicit sites that NBC Universal's chief digital officer George Kliavkoff said have sparked an "arms race." Pirates post them, media companies might have them removed, and then pirates post them again.

Back on "Gossip Girl," a New York Times piece Monday said the CW's intent to build TV tune-in by removing the show from the Web largely failed, but the pirates seemed to have found some booty.

Network head Dawn Ostroff told the paper: "The numbers for the illegal sites, like Bit Torrent, were astronomical."

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