Exploding TV: KA-BLOOM!

TV has finally exploded. And if other media — newspapers, magazines, and even online companies — don’t watch out, they may lose the broadband internet to TV companies.

In big news today, Disney said it will make episodes of its shows available online, for free and on-demand, the day after they air on broadcast.

On April 30, ABC will unveil a revamped Web site that will include a “theater” where people with broadband connections can watch free episodes of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and other hit shows on their computers. Episodes will be available the morning after they air and will be archived so people can eventually view a whole season. A Disney Channel version with five shows will start in June, and an ABC Family version is also planned. Disney’s Soapnet cable channel will start offering programs free on its Web site, Soapnetic, on April 17.

Episodes of the ABC shows — which can be paused, rewound and fast-forwarded — will contain commercial breaks that viewers can’t skip, making Disney hopeful it has figured out a way to turn the delivery of programs over the Web into a profit-generating business. Ten advertisers, including Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble, Universal Pictures and Unilever, already have signed up.

The initiative, to be announced today by Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, marks a watershed: the first time a TV company is offering major prime-time shows free online without restriction.

Well, almost without restriction. They will come with commercials that can’t be skipped. Will the added convenience of watching shows on your schedule — without having to pay iTunes — make up for the inconvenience of watching commercials? For now, it certainly will.

Not very long ago at all, the networks would not have dared to do this for fear of pissing off their distribution channels: station affiliates, cable MSOs, and even retailers for the DVD market. But now the force of change on the internet is so great that the networks are facing a choice of pissing them off or dying. They are choosing the former. I’d sell your cable stock, by the way.

ABC is being smart not to try to entirely replicate broadcast.

As part of an effort to engage the online community, viewers from around the country will be able to gather in “rooms” online to watch an episode of, say, “Lost” and chat about it. Disney will also promote the creation of fan sites for various shows. “We want to tie all of these fan sites closer to our brand,” Mr. Cheng says.

The ads won’t look like typical TV commercials. For starters, instead of five commercial breaks during an hourlong episode, there will be three breaks lasting a minimum of one minute each — all of them from the same advertiser. Mike Shaw, ABC’s president of sales, says viewers will have a choice of what type of ad to watch — for instance, a traditional video commercial or an interactive “game” commercial.

And that leads to the real danger to media competitors: Ad Age reported last week that the ad industry is “ousting broadcast TV as its central organizing principle.” That is seismic.

Instead, Ad Age reports (san links; their site is half-down now) that “in its place, a more flexible notion of video is emerging, one that is rendering obsolte many industry silos, forcing the rearrangement of TV and internet buying, planning and selling units, and bringing newbie digital types into ever closer proximity to grizzled broadcast buyers.”

What this really means: TV is grabbing a share of online advertising by redefining TV as both broadcast and broadband. Advertisers have always been more comfortable spending big money on TV. Now they can continue to spend their money with those familiar players and get broadband, too. And TV is doing this so as not to lose money to other media even as broadcast — and next, cable — shrink; this is how they rescue upfront. And if TV succeeds at holding advertisers’ attention and money, other players — online companies, magazines, newspapers — may not be able to break in. This an effort for both networks and ad agencies to keep ahead.

“Whenever I hear the word ‘broadcast,’ I try to dump it,” said David Rolfe…. “It’s a grotesque anachronism that implies the model where we’re just feeding viewers whatever we want them to have.”

At last.