Entertainment Industry

Category: Digital TV

Comcast to offer TV programs from all major networks on its VOD service

Comcast Corp. this week will add prime-time television series from Fox and ABC to its video-on-demand service, becoming the first pay television provider to offer episodes of current programs from all four major television networks:  ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

The move recognizes that consumers no longer are adhering to the old-school prime-time TV schedules that have long dictated how millions of TV viewers spend their evenings.  Consumers instead have embraced digital video recorders and services like Hulu, Netflix and Apple Inc.'s iTunes so they can watch TV programs on their own timetable. 

FoxFamilyGuy For Comcast, which generates the bulk of its revenue by piping TV and Internet service into people's homes, the enhanced VOD offering is a way to keep up with the shift in viewing habits. The nation's largest television provider will offer its nearly 20 million customers episodes of ABC's "Castle" and "Grey's Anatomy," and Fox's hit programs including "Glee," "Bones," "Hell's Kitchen" and "Family Guy," on its Xfinity TV On-Demand service the day after the episodes air on the networks.  

The new offerings become available Thursday.

Comcast's amped-up video-on-demand service is designed to get an edge on satellite TV and phone company competitors as well as Netflix, which primarily offers older episodes of TV programs, and Internet service Hulu, which offers current episodes from three of the four networks.  CBS does not supply its programming to Hulu.  (Comcast also owns a minority interest in Hulu).

"This makes us different from any of our competitors," Marcien Jenckes, Comcast's general manager of video services, said in an interview.  "People are still watching the majority of TV on the TV.  This points to the growth and the potential of our video-on-demand service."

Comcast's Xfinity TV On Demand service will have 32 of the top 50 network prime-time programs, Jenckes said.  The networks will offer the four most recent episodes from those series to the on-demand service, allowing viewers to catch up on episodes they might have missed.

There is no additional cost to subscribers, Jenckes said. Comcast allows the networks to set the number of commercials contained in their episodes, and keep the advertising revenue.

The initiative, Jenckes said, makes the Comcast service the most robust of any pay-TV provider.  Comcast launched its video-on-demand platform eight years ago and is on track to top 20 billion streams in May. 

CBS has offered episodes of its shows to Comcast's video-on-demand service since 2006.  Comcast recently added NBC programming.  The Philadelphia-based company owns 51% of NBCUniversal.

-- Meg James

Photo of Peter Griffin, Brian the dog and a genetically engineered cow on Fox's "Family Guy."  Credit: Fox

Comcast will retain NBC's stake in Hulu, but is stripped of control

Call it the Hulu Handcuff.

The federal government is making sure that Comcast Corp. won't be able to use its newfound clout when it takes control of NBC Universal to sabotage the online video website Hulu.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice gave their blessing to the proposed $30-billion combination of NBC Universal and Comcast. But the Obama administration attached comprehensive conditions that will make it difficult for Comcast to stifle competition, particularly in the burgeoning area of online video distribution.

Media industry executives have been particularly interested to see how regulators would manage Comcast's ability to influence Hulu -- which NBC Universal helped create and currently owns about a 30% interest in. Other big media companies, News Corp. and Walt Disney Co., along with Providence Equity Partners, are co-owners of the site.

In court filings Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department explained the challenge that Hulu presented: "Comcast has an incentive to prevent Hulu from becoming an even more attractive avenue for viewing video programming because Hulu would then exert increased competitive pressure on Comcast’s cable business. If the proposed transaction were to be consummated without conditions, [Comcast] would hold seats on Hulu’s board of directors and could exercise their voting and other governance rights to compromise strategic and competitive initiatives Hulu may wish to pursue."

In other words, the government wanted to make sure that viewers could still watch "30 Rock" and other popular NBC shows online, and not solely on television.

But the federal government stopped short of requiring Comcast to surrender NBC's stake in Hulu. Instead, regulators said they were seeking a more effective mechanism to blunt Comcast's ability to undermine the website. A Justice official said because it would be a "direct conflict" for Comcast to sit on Hulu's board, the government is forcing Comcast to give up its voting rights or its ability to remove NBC television programming from the site.

"Comcast/NBC Universal will continue to provide content to Hulu in a manner consistent with Hulu's other broadcast network owners," the company said in a statement.

Comcast will largely be kept in the dark on Hulu matters. The Justice Department said that Comcast would not be able to receive "confidential or competitively sensitive information concerning Hulu."

An FCC official explained that the government wanted to protect Hulu and take away any incentive by Comcast to "drive it into the ground."

-- Meg James


MGM launches classic TV service to roar like the Fonz

In one of its first moves after emerging from bankruptcy proceedings, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios is creating a national television programming service -- stocked with episodes of such classic sitcoms as "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley" -- to sell to television stations across the country.

The joint venture, called Me-TV, is an expansion of MGM's collaboration with Chicago-based TV station owner Weigel Broadcasting. (Me-TV stands for "memorable entertainment television.") Two years ago, the two companies formed ThisTV -- a programming service that featured B-level movies that had otherwise been sitting in MGM's vault. 

LaverneShirley ThisTV was offered to TV stations looking for low-cost programming to fill their digital spectrum. The network is now available in about 85% of homes with televisions in the U.S. Me-TV is similarly positioned to be sold to TV stations.  Weigel will schedule the network's programming, and MGM will handle distribution sales.

ThisTV offers a mix of movies and TV shows, but Me-TV is designed to showcase nostalgic TV programs, including "Cheers," "MASH," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and the "Green Hornet."  Weigel is currently broadcasting Me-TV on its stations in Chicago and Milwaukee, which television aficionados know as the home of basement dwellers "Laverne & Shirley."

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!"

-- Meg James

Photo: Penny Marshall, rear, and Cindy Williams as the respective title characters of "Laverne & Shirley." Courtesy: MGM


The Morning Fix: Google is coming for your TV! CBS has passage to India. BermanBraun rakes in some new dollars. Morty's back in late night.

After the coffee. Before yet another flight to New York. And in August no less.

Google is coming! Google is coming! Search giant Google is getting serious about its small-screen aspirations. The company has been meeting with broadcast and cable networks to try to get access to their content for its new Google TV application that will allow consumers to watch TV through the Web. Of course content providers want to make sure they a) get paid for their programming and b) don't alienate the cable and satellite distributors who already carry their channels. Google's real aim to is to get more ad dollars and leave Apple's television aspirations in the dust. More on Google's big push and what the challenges will be from the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal.

What's a million dollars between friends? Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. made headlines this week for its $1-million donation to the Republican Governors Assn. This, of course, gave fuel to the left to take shots at Murdoch's Fox News operation. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who also works for Fox News rival CNN, followed up on Tuesday's story on this from Politico. A News Corp. spokesman told Kurtz that it is "patently false" that a donation by News Corp. would somehow influence coverage at Fox News. By the way, lots of media companies give money to political causes. The New York Times also weighed in with a article on Rupert's largess. 

Really, it'll happen. Variety checks on Disney's deal to sell Miramax to Ron Tutor, the big-shot construction guy (sorry, I'm tired of saying "construction magnate") and says that although the pact was announced weeks ago, the financing is still not nailed down. The deadline to close is Sept. 7, and odds seem long that it will be met. Of course, Disney could extend it or go back on the market and see if Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein want to make one more run. 

A passage to India. CBS and India's Reliance Broadcast Network Limited announced early Wednesday morning their plans to launch a joint venture that will create three English-language television channels. The networks, which will launch later this year, will feature both current CBS content and library fare as well. CBS becomes the latest U.S. media company to try to build a presence in India. Here's an early take from the Hollywood Reporter and an old story about the talks from the Wall Street Journal, just to bring you up to speed.

Morty's back. Veteran producer Robert "Morty" Morton is coming back to late night as the show runner for TBS' "Lopez Tonight." Morton was the longtime executive producer for David Letterman. The move comes as Lopez prepares for his show to relocate to midnight to make room for Conan O'Brien. Details from Broadcasting & Cable

Read at your own risk. The Wrap says it has come across an e-mail with details of what is in development at Paramount Pictures. Among the projects are a Will Smith movie from director Kathryn Bigelow and a comedy starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Paramount told the Wrap that some of the material in the e-mail is right and some it is wrong.

Digital dollars. BermanBraun, the entertainment company headed by former TV big shots Gail Berman and Lloyd Braun, has roped in $100 million in advertising commitments from Starcom, a big agency whose clients include Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart. The money is for BermanBraun's digital operations, including its websites Wonderwall and Glo. The New York Times, which always seems to have the inside scoop on these guys, has the story, as does the Wall Street Journal blog All Things D. They can flip a coin to decide which one was fed this first. 

Turner on a roll. "Rizzoli & Isles," the female detective drama featuring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, is the latest hit for TNT. Although it has hardly been a critical smash, it is drawing big audiences and proves that there is a big appetite for what Ad Age calls "meat and potatoes"-type programming. Variety also weighs in on a piece about cable's hot summer.

Inside the Los Angeles Times: Dr. Laura says goodbye to radio. Just because the star leaves, that doesn't mean the show can't go on. Haim Saban buys Julius the Monkey.

-- Joe Flint

Follow me on Twitter. I've been known to tweet from airplanes. Twitter.com/JBFlint

Sony Television plans to launch two new U.S. channels

Sony Pictures Television has plans to launch two new movie channels later this year, continuing the company's expansion, according to people familiar with the plans.

One venture, tentatively titled Sony Pictures Movies HD, would be the company's first wholly owned cable channel in the U.S. devoted to movies. Although the company owns an expansive portfolio of foreign channels, it has not tapped the lucrative cable TV channel business in the U.S. 

Mosko "They have been very successful internationally with their channels, but in the U.S. they have not had the leverage of the other media conglomerates, which have a bunch of different cable channels," said Derek Baine, television analyst for the consulting firm SNL Kagan. "Perhaps they are doing this because the market to sell movies to broadcast and cable networks has been so bad." 

The channel, tentatively scheduled to debut Oct. 1, is being designed to exploit Sony's large film library and offer cable and satellite television operators another high-definition channel to market their packages. Sony owns a stake in the Game Show Network, and it has been experimenting with an advertising-supported online video service, Crackle, which allows people to watch movies and TV shows, as well as series "webisodes."

The Sony movie channel would not be a premium service that competes with HBO, Starz or Showtime -- or an upstart like Epix, according to the sources. Two years ago, three prominent Hollywood studios -- Viacom's Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- teamed up to create the Epix movie channel, but they have encountered resistance from cable operators, who balked at paying as much as $1.50 a subscriber per month to carry the service.

Sony's venture is expected to be a more modest affair, akin to the Universal HD and the MGM HD channels. MGM receives about 55 cents per subscriber, according to SNL Kagan data.

The other new movie channel being offered to cable and satellite TV systems is FearNet, a joint venture of Sony, Lionsgate and Comcast Corp.  Boasting a trove of horror movies, FearNet currently is offered as an online service and a video-on-demand channel by some cable operators, including Comcast, Cox Communications, AT&T's U-verse and Verizon Fios.

Although FearNet is available in about 28 million homes, TV video-on-demand channels have not gotten much traction.  Sony also is aiming for an Oct. 1 launch for the FearNet movie channel.

Andy Kaplan, president of networks for Sony Pictures Television, is in charge of Sony's efforts to get carriage for the channels. Steve Mosko is president of Sony Pictures Television.

-- Meg James

Photo: Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

Source: Bids for Disney's Miramax range from $550 million to $650-million-plus

Details are starting to trickle in about who's bidding what for Disney's Miramax.

The biggest bid is from Pangea Media Group, which is headed by financier David Bergstein. According to a person close to the situation, Pangea is offering $650 million for Miramax but will up that to $700 million if Disney throws in the unreleased animated film "Gnomeo and Juliet."

The Weinstein Co., which persuaded supermarket magnate Ron Burkle to throw his weight behind its bid, has offered about $600 million. Brothers Alec and Tom Gores, who run investments firms Gores Group and Platinum respectively, made a bid in the $550-million range.

If Disney decides to move ahead with plans to unload Miramax, it will probably pick whoever can get the cash the fastest. In other words, the highest bid may not be a lock if it comes with complications.

None of the competing bidders and Disney were immediately available for comment.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski and Joe Flint

FloTV drives mobile television beyond cellphones

I'll take that TV show to go, please.

Americans increasingly want their entertainment wherever and whenever they like, giving fuel for companies such as Qualcomm to sell services that provide just that.

The San Diego technology company, which offers its subscription TV service on cellphones via carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, is rolling out the service in three new places: cars, iPhones and your pocket, via a $249 hand-held device with a kickstand (pictured above).

Instead of the often-flaky 3G service offered by most carriers, Qualcomm's FloTV service uses a UHF channel to broadcast about 20 mobile channels, including ESPN, Nickelodeon, MTV and Disney Channel.

The subscription service is offered through cellphone carriers for $7 to $15 a month.

How's that working out? Qualcomm isn't saying, but judging by its recent announcements, FloTV hasn't taken off like a rocket. One potential explanation: obscurity. A lot of people don't know the service exists. And carriers have a laundry list of other features they want to push, so they don't always get around to selling the service.

To remedy that, Qualcomm will push its service on iPhones and iPod Touches by hitching a ride on something called the mophie juice pack. Essentially an extra battery disguised as a hard case for the iPhone, the device will have a tiny UHF receiver and Wi-Fi chip embedded to grab FloTV signals. Prices for this doohickey, due out this spring, have not been announced.

It's also reaching out to harried parents who have screens in their backseats to placate their kids. Working with Audiovox, Qualcomm is selling a kit that can be installed into existing rear-seat entertainment systems so that Susie can keep watching "Dora the Explorer" while Mom carts her off to soccer practice.

And last November, Qualcomm started selling its diminutive FloTV Personal TV with six months of free service. After that, it's $10 a month.

Why the rush? With free mobile DTV from local broadcasters approaching fast, Qualcomm may be feeling an urgency to get FloTV out there more quickly than cellphone companies have been taking it.

-- Alex Pham


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