Do Average Viewers Reap On-Demand Benefits?

CBS and NBC have joined ABC in making some TV shows available to viewers on demand. But for TiVo and other digital video recorder users, this is nothing new. And since each network's deal is with a different provider, is this big news for the average viewer without a DVR?

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

All the players involved in this week's deal--CBS, NBC, Comcast and DirecTV--are calling this an exciting development. But for people who own TiVo or other digital video recorders, or as they're called DVRs, this really isn't anything new. They can already watch what they want when they want it for free. And for those without DVRs, industry watchers say don't expect too much too soon from the new services. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

I get home, it's after 11. Before I go to bed, I want to watch some television to settle down.

(Soundbite of news programs)

Unidentified Man: ...the White House continuing to beat the drum on...

Unidentified Woman #1: As you can see in the Nasdaq...

Unidentified Woman #2: Fear of a pandemic...

SYDELL: The news is more agitating than relaxing. I'm not that interested in the rest of the stuff that's on at this hour. What I really want is my favorite, "Law & Order: SVU."

(Soundbite of "Law & Order: SVU")

Unidentified Woman #3: Hey, look at this. Jimmy's Pick and Pack, North Bergen, New Jersey.

SYDELL: The deals just made between CBS and Comcast and NBC and DirecTV are meant to satisfy my craving, but will they really?

Mr. ROGER McNAMEE (Managing Director, Elevation Partners): What you really see is much more political behavior than commitment to the customer.

SYDELL: That's Roger McNamee. He's a managing director of the venture capital firm Elevation Partners, which invests in media and entertainment content, especially that geared towards new media. McNamee says the television networks are no more anxious to change their economic model than the record companies have been. But they have taken a lesson away from watching the music industry struggle with consumer behavior they can't control, so they're trying to prepare for the inevitable.

Mr. McNAMEE: Everybody knows they're going to have to get there, and they would all like to delay it as long as possible. So everybody's trying to do this in little steps, and I would say, for the most part, they're moving in the right direction.

SYDELL: The problem here, says McNamee, is that it's still a complex situation for consumers. If you happen to be a DirecTV viewer, then you can download "Law & Order." If I'm a Comcast subscriber, too bad because their deal is with CBS. The recent deal between Apple and ABC, which offers shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" for $1.99 each, indicates that many consumers really do want control over when they watch their shows. The Apple iTunes store sold a million video downloads in just over two weeks. But Rafat Ali, the publisher of PaidContent.org, which follows digital media, admits that these deals aren't exactly consumer utopia.

Mr. RAFAT ALI (Publisher, PaidContent.org): For now, the excitement factor is not on the consumer side. It's just on the business side. And it shows that the TV network's at least beginning to think about these things and move in some direction towards the ultimate nirvana, which is having any show you want at any time you want.

SYDELL: But there may be perils in taking the slow road towards that end, says venture capitalist McNamee. The record companies have been taking their time in switching over, and that's meant that consumers have gone elsewhere to get what they want; that is, free downloading services.

Mr. McNAMEE: It's a little bit like being Evel Knievel trying to go across the canyon. Once you go, you're committed. And if you don't give it quite enough juice and you fall short, bad things happen.

SYDELL: McNamee says if other options catch on, the networks could find themselves left behind. Still, he and other observers admit that consumers aren't moving fast yet either. There's still some people who like to come home at night, flip through the channels and let someone else offer up a few options from which to choose. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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