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ABC Expands Show Universe With DVD-Style Online Commentary

Commentary tracks have been a staple on DVDs since the format became the home video standard in the early 2000s, with creators and stars talking over old television episodes to give new insight into the programs they have worked on. But ABC has been experimenting with a similar feature, which it calls Expert Commentary, on its Website. The feature takes popular shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and General Hospital and has actors, producers and others give behind-the-scenes insight about the show. The goal is to get loyal fans of the show to rewatch episodes they already caught on TV and to drive brand awareness, community interaction and revenue down the line.

More than 1.1 million views of commentary-enhanced shows have been logged since Jan. 1, ABC says. The feature has performed well enough that the company plans to expand it in the coming months to ABC Family programs like The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and is thinking about bringing it to Disney Channel.

While the content is similar to what viewers might find in the “extras” section of a DVD box set, ABC views the two as very different animals. “I look at DVDs as the definitive commentary from the creators and the people involved, and I look at episode commentary online as a social media-esque way of responding to the episode,” says Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for the Disney-ABC Television Group.

“The kinds of content and kinds of reactions you are going to get are actually very different.”

Indeed, interactivity is the name of the game online, with users now expecting the ability to comment and talk back to content creators through their Websites. To that end, ABC is letting users add their own commentary to episodes, and gives them the option to share it with their friends. “We have had bloggers who are big Lost fans create commentaries we thought were really good,” Cheng says.

While the episodes featuring commentary are currently rolled into ABC’s full-episode player with regards to ad sales, Cheng says the network is looking at ways to more effectively monetize the feature. The company has mocked up different ad units not available on the normal player, and is also developing ways that advertisers could have their brands featured more organically in the commentaryenhanced episodes.

The strategy comes as the DVD marketplace continues to struggle. A March 17 report from research firm Strategy Analytics says that DVD sales dropped 9% in 2009 and are expected to drop another 12% in 2010. Television DVD box sets, which can often top $50, have been hit even harder than the feature film market.