Full TV Episode Download To Begin Next Year

The commercial TV networks have signalled expansive plans for full TV episode downloads next year but are likely to shun charging users for the bulk of their content in favour of an advertiser-funded service.

Seven does not offer full episode downloads, Ten has experimented in a small way with shows such as Supernatural, and Nine, via ninemsn, continues with its year-long trials of McLeod's Daughters, Sea Patrol, CSI and Madmen for $1.95 an episode.

However, Nine and Ten have signalled their intention to launch free full-length episodes of local and international programs next year, with some negotiations under way with advertisers.

Seven did not know its position on full-length episode downloads, although some in the network said Australian audiences were so far only interested in short-form wraps to catch up on plots or to preview episodes.

However, the experience in the past 12 months of the US broadcasters, particularly Seven's big US output partner, the Disney-owned ABC, is the opposite.

ABC dropped its pay-per-episode service last September and launched its own broadband video player on ABC.com, which it says has resulted in more than 140 million episode views being "initiated" - the broadband player only allows US users to view the material.

ABC's downloadable shows in the US include Desperate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, Grey's Anatomy and Lost. Three weeks ago ABC also struck its first distribution deal with a big online portal, AOL, in which a co-branded version of the TV network's broadband player will allow AOL users to view the ABC's new season line-up of TV shows free, hours after the broadcast.

NBC announced at the same time it would offer a slate of its programs online free from November, with TV commercials in the downloaded episodes.

Disney-ABC International also struck a potentially threatening deal in September for its broadcast partners outside the US - the Seven Network included - after finalising an agreement last month to allow the Finnish commercial TV broadcaster, Nelonen, to release hit ABC shows such as Ugly Betty and Lost via broadband up to 12 months before the TV schedule. Finnish users will pay €3 ($4.72) for each episode.

The director of product and strategy at ninemsn, Jane O'Connell, would not disclose the number of episodes its users had paid for the four shows in its fee-based line-up but said the first instalment of Sea Patrol, offered free as a launch promotion earlier this year, generated four times the downloads as the paid service.

Ms O'Connell said ninemsn saw great opportunity in advertising-supported downloads. "We expect to see something significant in the next six months. The biggest challenge is wading through the [intellectual property] rights.

"The only thing holding us back is broadband speeds. Audiences would love it."

She said ninemsn had streamed about 250,000 short-form "catch-up" TV segments in September of its drama shows, Sea Patrol and McLeod's Daughters.

Ten's general manager of digital media, Damian Smith, said the network would make available more full-length episodes in 2008.

"We want to be in free content with ads. In 12 months from now you will see a lot more free full episodes," he said.

Mr Smith expected online audience numbers to be between 10 and 20 per cent of the broadcast TV figure for popular programs but climb after that. "The reality is the mass audience is still with the broadcast channel. Then you've got the passionate 20 [per cent] who clearly want more and that's where online and mobile steps in."

The research firm IDC says the number of Americans who watch mobile TV will more than triple from 7 million to 24 million in the next three years.

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