Internet Service to Put Classic TV on Home Computer
By SAUL HANSELL
Looking for "The Fugitive?" Didn't get enough "Eight Is Enough?" Would you like to "Welcome Back, Kotter" one more time?
Warner Brothers is preparing a major new Internet service that will let fans watch full episodes from more than 100 old television series. The service, called In2TV, will be free, supported by advertising, and will start early next year. More than 4,800 episodes will be made available online in the first year.
The move will give Warner a way to reap new advertising revenue from a huge trove of old programming that is not widely syndicated.
Programs on In2TV will have one to two minutes of commercials for each half-hour episode, compared with eight minutes in a standard broadcast. The Internet commercials cannot be skipped.
America Online, which is making a broad push into Internet video, will distribute the service on its Web portal. Both it and Warner Brothers are Time Warner units. An enhanced version of the service will use peer-to-peer file-sharing technology to get the video data to viewers.
Warner, with 800 television programs in its library, says it is the largest TV syndicator. It wants to use the Internet to reach viewers rather than depend on the whims of cable networks and local TV stations, said Eric Frankel, the president of Warner Brothers' domestic cable distribution division.
"We looked at the rise of broadband on Internet and said, 'Let's try to be the first to create a network that opens a new window of distribution for us rather than having to go hat in hand to a USA or a Nick at Night or a TBS,' " Mr. Frankel said.
Warner's offering comes at a time when television producers and networks are exploring new ways to use digital technology to distribute programs.
Many of the recent moves include charging viewers for current programs. ABC has started selling episodes of some programs to download to Apple iPods for $1.99. And NBC and CBS announced last week that they would sell reruns of their top new shows for 99 cents an episode through video-on-demand services. CBS is working with Comcast and NBC with DirecTV.
(The CBS programs to be sold on Comcast include commercials, but viewers can skip them. The NBC programs on DirecTV and the ABC programs from Apple have no commercials.)
Of the media companies' new experiments, Peter Storck, president of the Points North Group, a research firm, remarked, "They are saying let's take the plunge, put the content out there, and figure out how to monetize it." Programs on In2TV will range from recently canceled series like "La Femme Nikita" to vintage shows like "Maverick" from the early 1960's . Other series that will be available include "Chico and the Man," "Wonder Woman" and "Babylon 5."
The company will offer a changing selection of several hundred episodes each month, rather than providing continuous access to all the episodes in a series, Mr. Frankel said, so as not to cannibalize potential DVD sales of old TV shows.
And in the future, when Warner negotiates with cable networks to syndicate popular programs, Mr. Frankel said, the price will be higher if the network wants it kept off the Internet.
For AOL, the In2TV deal is part of a broad strategy to create a range of video offerings to attract people to its free AOL.com portal. It already offers some video news and sports programs from CBS News, ABC and CNN.
At the same time, it is creating programming aimed at women and young people, including an online reality series called "The Biz," giving contestants the chance to become a music producer, in conjunction with the Warner Music Group (which is no longer owned by Time Warner).
Next month AOL will introduce TMZ, an entertainment news service, in a joint venture with another Warner Brothers division, Telepictures Productions. TMZ, named for the 30-mile zone around Hollywood that is mentioned in some film-union contracts, will mix breaking entertainment news and gossip with a database of information and video about celebrities. It will be run by Harvey Levin, former executive producer of " Celebrity Justice," a syndicated program about the legal woes of entertainment figures, which Telepictures canceled last spring.
TMZ and most of AOL's programming effort, so far, have been built largely around short video segments, reflecting the conventional view that Internet users are less likely to want to watch full-length programs on a computer screen.
Yet a recent survey by the Points North Group of 1,098 Internet users found that 28 percent said they wanted to watch regular television shows on their PC's or laptops, Mr. Storck said.
Full-length TV shows on the In2TV service responds to that demand, particularly as more people hook their computers up to their television sets.
AOL will offer a version of the service meant to be watched on a television set connected to a Windows Media Center PC, and it is exploring a similar arrangement to link the Internet programming to television through TiVo video recorders.
For those who want to watch on a big screen, AOL is introducing optional technology that it says will produce a DVD-quality picture. Even with a broadband connection, most Internet video looks grainy at full width on a computer monitor, let alone a big TV set. The new option, called AOL Hi-Q, will require the downloading once of special software, and the program may not start for several minutes, depending on the speed of the users' connection.
There is a catch. To use the technology, viewers will have to agree to participate in a special file-sharing network. This approach helps AOL reduce the cost of distributing-high quality video files by passing portions of the video files from one user's computer to another. AOL says that since it will control the network, it can protect users from the sorts of viruses and spyware that infect other peer-to-peer systems.
AOL is using file-sharing technology from Kontiki, a Silicon Valley company providing a similar system to the ambitious Internet video program of the BBC.
Warner is also adding shorter segments and interactive features for users who do not want to watch entire episodes. Each month, there will be a series of one- or two-minute excerpts drawn from the full-length episodes, featuring funny scenes or segments showing famous actors when they played bit parts on TV. (Brad Pitt, for one, had a small role on "Growing Pains" in 1987.) These excerpts can be sent to friends by e-mail or instant message, and will eventually be offered on mobile phones.
Other programs will be accompanied by interactive features that can be displayed side by side with the video, like trivia quizzes and video games related to the shows. One feature, to accompany "Welcome Back, Kotter," will allow users to upload a picture of themselves (or a friend) and superimpose 1970's hair styles and fashion, and send the pictures by e-mail to friends or use as icons on AOL's instant-message system.
"This is great goofy stuff that fans are going to love," Mr. Storck of the Points North Group said.