Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television network will offer some of its most popular shows, such as “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” free on the Internet in a two-month trial, the company said Monday.
The move was the latest effort by leading U.S. media companies to experiment with the delivery of programs through new technologies and still maintain revenue as viewership for prime-time television schedules slowly erodes.
ABC already sells digital downloads of its highest-rated TV shows for the popular iPod music and video player, while other networks have been testing online and video-on-demand formats for airing shows soon after they first appear on broadcast TV.
“It’s really an opportunity for us to learn about a different model,” said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC television group. “It’s more importantly recognizing that none of us can live in a world of just one business model.”
Top ABC shows such as “Commander in Chief” and “Alias,” along with “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” will be available on the Web at ABC.com in May and June, starting the day after they are first broadcast, the network said.
Viewers will be able to pause and move between “chapters” in an episode but will not be able to skip ads that are technically embedded.
Advertising revenue will support the trial run on ABC.com, with 10 advertisers, including AT&T; Inc., Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble Co. and Universal Pictures signed up. Some will insert video ads into the content and others will sponsor shows, with the idea of tailoring commercials to the Internet experience.
Disney is also launching a high-speed Internet channel for soap opera fans, called Soapnetic, on April 17 for subscribers to Verizon Communications Inc.'s Internet services.
Sweeney said the network was intent on bringing in more viewers under the age of 27. These are what some marketers have dubbed the “millennial” generation of consumers, who are at ease with technology and often use several media outlets at the same time.
ABC said it would also explore ways to bring its local broadcast affiliates into online offerings.
Disney made the announcement at a convention in Atlanta sponsored by the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. Participants asked whether ABC’s trial would threaten U.S. cable operators that have linked up with the networks to charge for on-demand viewing of such shows.
But cable executives said they viewed it as part of the entire industry’s effort to capture new audiences amid fiercer competition with the Internet, video games and digital downloads.
“The idea is to find a way to make the pie bigger,” said Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., the top U.S. cable operator.
Disney shares rose 26 cents, or 0.9%, to $27.79 on Monday.