Walt Disney is to make its top TV programmes available free on the internet in a two-month trial.
From next month, Disney’s ABC network will offer Lost, Desperate Housewives, Commander in Chief and Alias via a revamped website.
The programmes will be available for download over a broadband internet connection following their network premieres. They will contain advertising – which cannot be skipped – from such companies as AT&T, Cingular, Ford, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Unilever and Universal Pictures.
It will also supply programmes from its Soap Net and Disney Channel cable networks.
It is the latest experiment by a large media company to reach consumers over a variety of emerging digital platforms – including cable and satellite video-on-demand, the internet and mobile phones.
In October, Disney made history when it announced plans to sell episodes – without advertising – of Lost and Desperate Housewives for $1.99 each through Apple’s iTunes store the day after their network debuts.
Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, called the new ABC.com website a test and a learning opportunity, saying: “We don’t know if the ABC internet channel will be bigger than the linear channel. We are going to find out.
“We have models that use subscription and models that provide the content for free. We need to figure out what works.”
The move marks another shift away from the traditional network TV business model in which ABC and others broadcast their programmes at set times each week, supported by 30-second advertising. That model has come into question with the advent of digital-video-recorders, which let viewers record programmes, watch them when they please, and to skip advertisements.
Wall Street analysts and media executives have played down the financial effects of the new distribution services, noting that it will be years before they make a material impact on earnings.
However, they have already shown the potential to damage traditional business partners. ABC’s affiliate stations reacted angrily when the iTunes deal was announced, fearing that they would lose viewers and revenues. The new internet deal could also signal a threat to cable and satellite operators by replacing them as content distributors.
ABC executives said on Monday that it would share data from the experiment with its affiliates and hoped to find ways for them to participate in the new venture. “Everything we do has to refer back to the primary platforms of cable and broadcast, that is the way to ensure all these technologies are additive,” Ms Sweeney said.