Bebo Inc., the No. 3 social network website, is trying to catch up to market leaders MySpace and Facebook Inc. by allowing major media companies to add music and videos to its site for free and keeping any ad revenue they generate.
Bebo's strategy, which it unveiled Tuesday: Add popular entertainment for users to share with their network of friends in the hope that the site can grow its audience and get it to stay tuned in longer. Launch partners include Viacom Inc.'s MTV, CBS Corp., Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, Yahoo Inc., Sony Pictures Entertainment Co.'s Crackle and JibJab Media Inc.
Bebo is the top social networking site in Britain, and it's trying to distinguish itself as a "social media network" to gain traction in the U.S. News Corp.'s MySpace drew 107 million worldwide visitors in September, followed by Facebook with 73.5 million and Bebo with 19.7 million, according to ComScore Inc.
This year, San Francisco-based Bebo launched "KateModern," an online drama based on the lonelygirl15 Web videos. It will be followed by an interactive teen series, "Sofia's Diary," and reality series "The Gap Year."
Bebo says the original programming helps users make social connections through entertainment. The approach is a hit with Bebo's young audience, most of whom are 13 to 24 and spend more time online than watching television. An estimated 25 million people have watched the daily four-minute episodes of "KateModern."
Forging strong ties with major media players was a logical next step, Bebo President Joanna Shields said.
"Social networking for us was act one," she said. "Act two is using user-generated content, dramas created for Bebo and content from the majors to engage users."
The strategy could pay off for traditional media companies, which are looking for ways to get music and video in front of younger audiences without losing control of their content as they have on other sites such as Google Inc.'s YouTube. Copyright violations have dogged YouTube since Google bought the video-sharing site a year ago.
"Audiences that live in social networks are very meaningful to us," said Jonathan Shambroom, Crackle's senior vice president of marketing and products.
Sausalito, Calif.-based Crackle is a mini studio that aims to get the best user-generated content onto TV or into theaters, and it partners with MySpace, Facebook and other social networks. The Sony service will provide Bebo users with three kinds of original programming: indie music, sketch comedy and animation. It was drawn to the opportunity to promote its programming and sell ads using its own video player, Shambroom said.
Bebo users can store their favorite music and videos on their profile pages and share them with others in their network. They also can choose to be matched with others who share their tastes and to get alerts when new content pops up on their favorite channels.
"This is another step in reinforcing the idea that social networks are emerging as a new channel for media distribution," Gartner Research analyst Andrew Frank said.
"The beauty of advertising and creating media for social networks is that it can distribute virally. You can reach a great number of people without the standard costs of having to pay for media placement or bandwidth."