After studying the viewing behavior of its young audience, the CW television network has switched strategies and is no longer delaying the online release of such popular shows as "Gossip Girl" and "The Vampire Diaries."
CW -- a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. -- said Thursday that it would begin making episodes of its prime-time series available several hours after their initial television broadcast. The move is significant because it illustrates how television companies are moving quickly to adapt to rapid changes in technology in an effort to protect important revenue streams.
"Consumers have been telling us that they want the ability to watch their shows whenever and where ever they are," said Rick Haskins, CW executive vice president of marketing and digital programs. "If we don't listen to them, we will be missing an opportunity."
In recent years the CW has made dramatic changes in its online strategy as the network has figured out how to better monetize digital views of its programs.
Early on, the network hesitated to put its shows on the Web at all. But since September 2010 the CW has been delaying the online release of its episodes until three days after airing.
The three-day blackout was designed to boost the TV ratings, and thus protect the important TV advertising revenue. Advertisers pay premiums to reach viewers who watch shows on TV or within three days of their original airing, if the program has been digitally recorded.
CW executives were betting that viewers would be so eager to watch fresh episodes of their most popular shows, including "The Vampire Diaries," "One Tree Hill," and "90210," that they would watch them on TV rather than wait to see them on their laptops.
Viewers were eager to see the latest episode, all right. Research by the Warner Bros. anti-piracy group discovered that nearly a third of online viewers of CW's most popular shows were so motivated that they watched them on a pirate website.
"And 50% of that consumption was done during the first three days after the television run," Haskins said. "That's a lot of money out of our pockets."
By releasing its shows just a few hours after their TV broadcast (at 3 a.m. Pacific time), the CW hopes to reach viewers who otherwise would have pirated them. New technologies also allow the CW to measure the number of online viewers and determine whether they watch the commercials, providing another source of reliable audience data to share with advertisers.
The CW also has been at the forefront of advocating heavier "commercial loads," so the online streams contain as many ads as would be seen in a TV broadcast.
That is a departure from conventional wisdom among most online video distributors. Many believed that online viewers would lack the patience to sit through too many commercials. Sites such as Hulu offer episodes with about half the number of ads that would run on TV.
"We have found that viewers were indeed willing to watch a full commercial load," Haskins said.
CW also announced Thursday that it was introducing its first mobile application for iPad, iPhone and Android platforms. The app enables full-episode streaming of the network's prime-time series and provides a feature for fans to alert their friends on Facebook and Twitter that they are watching a particular episode.
-- Meg James
Photo: Joseph Morgan in a scene from the CW hit "The Vampire Diaries." Credit: Quantrell Colbert / CW