Walt Disney Co.'s ABC is looking to become the first broadcast network to go live on the Internet on a full-time basis.
"Watch ABC" will debut this fall and allow viewers to watch the network from mobile devices and tablets when they are away from home. Watch ABC will basically be a live stream of the network's feed as well as local programming such as news.
There are some catches. The service is only available to people who already have a pay-TV provider. Also, it will initially not be available in every market because ABC needs to reach distribution agreements for Watch ABC with all its local affiliates.
The first two markets to have Watch ABC will be New York and Philadelphia starting May 14, where ABC owns the stations. Then ABC will roll the service out to other markets where it owns local TV stations including KABC-TV Los Angeles.
Also partnering with the network on the service is Hearst Corp., which owns several major market ABC affiliates including outlets in Boston and Pittsburgh.
"Watch ABC is a game-changing innovation for the broadcast television industry," said Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. "This announcement represents a defining moment in technology and distribution, as well as for our advertising and affiliate partners, as we ensure that our high-quality content is available to viewers on a variety of devices."
The "Watch ABC" effort represents a dramatic shift in the way networks view the Web. While much of the TV industry has been focused on putting content online, it has mostly used the platform for video on demand, not live TV.
The reasons for that approach are several. First, there was a school of thought that consumers were not interested in watching live TV on the Web but instead preferred to use it for movies or to catch up on shows they may have missed.
Another issue had to do with the often complex relationship between broadcast networks and the local stations that carry their programming. The local stations don't want viewers to be able to bypass them and just watch a national ABC feed on the Web. That would hurt their ratings and ad revenue.
That meant ABC had to ensure that the interests of its affiliates were protected and that any feed include their local programming in any online linear feed of the network. In addition, many local stations carry syndicated programs that they may not have the rights to offer online. There are also rights issues regarding sports highlights that appear in local news and even music rights.
The broadcast networks are also eager to create live online feeds of their channels to trump Aereo, a new start-up service that offers live broadcast network feeds through the Internet. The broadcasters have challenged the legality of Aereo on copyright grounds.
Cable networks are also increasingly offering live feeds of the linear channels. Initially only news and sports outlets were aggressive regarding live online feeds, but now more and more entertainment networks are working on similar offerings.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.