Rival Nets 'Watch' as ABC Steals Show With New Streaming App

NBC kicked off upfronts week on May 13, in keeping with long-standing tradition. But it was ABC that dominated the chatter during NBC’s presentation at Radio City Music Hall and at the other upfront performance cathedrals around New York. Just hours before NBC stepped onstage, ABC announced the debut of its Watch ABC live-streaming service in New York and Philadelphia. The network, as it had done by making Desperate Housewives and Lost available on iTunes way back in 2005, again set the pace in digital distribution.

Anne Sweeney, president, Disney/ABC Television Group, described the Watch ABC initiative as something of a trial. “Our mission with this special preview is to gather key learnings about the service and the consumers who utilize it in order for our Watch products to be the gold-standard experience of authenticated multiplatform viewing,” she said.

Besides its owned stations, ABC got a key affiliate group, Hearst TV, on board, with Hearst chairman/CEO David Barrett citing the importance of connecting with users on all screens. ABC is now pitching other affiliate groups on the venture, which involves station partners paying a license fee in exchange for the expanded ad inventory the geo-targeted, live-streaming service represents—and a chance to be on board with a viewing medium that may represent television’s future.

Getting affiliate buy-in may be challenging. Dave Boylan, ABC affiliates board chairman, noted that there are many details to be worked out, though he said the venture is off to a promising start. “There are a lot of questions to be answered about how everyone licenses content in the new agreement,” Boylan said. “I think those questions will be answered.”

Maryann Baldwin, VP at consulting firm Magid Media Futures, believes Watch ABC is a win for all involved, allowing for additive viewing and a chance to gather vital information about how the next generation consumes content. “It’s a huge learning opportunity to understand where the audience wants to go when they have these various access points,” Baldwin said.

On May 14, the day of Watch ABC’s official debut, NBC announced plans to launch its own TV Everywhere initiative with owned stations and affiliates in mid-2014. “We have a plan, and the affiliates are happy, we’re happy, and now we just have to let the technology people [complete the project],” said Ted Harbert, NBC Broadcasting chairman.

While its Fox Now app offers network programming, Fox is working with affiliates to produce a live streaming service that features both national and local programming and is looking at a fall launch. With Fox’s younger demographics, some anticipated a streaming announcement similar to ABC’s during its upfront presentation. “I’m a little surprised Fox wasn’t right there with them,” said David Bank, managing director of equity research at RBC Capital Markets.

CBS’ acquisition last month of a stake in Internet TV plat- form Syncbak shed light on its digital distribution plans. But CBS has otherwise been quiet on the issue, perhaps awaiting better out-of-home measurement. CBS Corp. president/CEO Leslie Moonves told a press gathering last week that spending time on pitching live-streaming could be interpreted as a sign of network weakness. “We do multiplatform, but anyone who spends 20 minutes of their upfront talking about multiplatform doesn’t have much else to sell,” he said.

Mobile initiatives, crucial in the fight against streaming service Aereo, will be around long after most of the programs that were showcased on the big screens across upfront week. NBC, as usual, introduced a long litany of rookies designed to finally bring consistency to its primetime lineup. It can be difficult to muster optimism when so many NBC offerings fail each year, but Jordan Wertlieb, NBC affiliates board chairman, likes NBC’s efforts with dramas in the key 10 p.m. slot—a time period the network gave up to less-expensive Jay Leno fare as recently as 2010. “NBC is obviously focused on building upon its success this year,” Wertlieb said.

As the wild week wound down, it may have been ABC’s streaming app that out-buzzed Jack Bauer’s return to Fox, Robin Williams getting back into the sitcom game at CBS and Enrique Iglesias entertaining the Univi- sion crowd with a high-octane performance. “It’s the exact direction things need to be moving in,” said Bank. “It’s a really big positive in the context of technologies that are currently trying to disrupt the marketplace.”

E-mail comments to mmalone@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCMikeMalone

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.