On AOL, vintage TV shows for free

New online service a test for Internet


Time Warner Inc. announced yesterday that it would make more than 100 old television series - including Falcon Crest, Kung Fu and Welcome Back, Kotter, the 1970s sitcom that made John Travolta a star - available free in the first major archive of TV shows on the Web.

When it starts in January, the joint venture between Warner Bros. Domestic Cable Distribution and America Online could help TV, Internet and advertising executives gauge the appetite for longer entertainment programs on the Web, which is dominated by shorter bits typically lasting no more than a few minutes.

The project, In2TV, might give new life to once-popular TV programs that have fallen out of syndication. It is also a bid to tap into the booming market for online ads, including streaming video commercials.

In2TV is the latest example of how rapidly the Internet is transforming the television business.

Studio executives watched warily as the Internet threatened the music business with free services that offered unlimited - and illegal - song downloading. So they are experimenting with ways to let people watch shows on computers and mobile devices legally, hoping to add revenue in the process.

"Filmed entertainment is getting its act together pretty fast now," said David Card, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "There's life in the old dog yet."

In the past month, such major broadcasters as ABC, CBS and NBC Universal have struck deals to make some of their hit programs available through various services for 99 cents to $1.99 the day after the shows first air.

The AOL service differs because it offers free access to TV shows no longer on the air. The economic model replicates that of traditional TV: Advertisers are expected to foot the bill through four commercial breaks of 15 or 30 seconds during each half-hour show. Viewers will be able to choose shows from six channels, then watch episodes streamed to their computers. AOL is negotiating with major sponsors, such as PepsiCo Inc., that are looking for new opportunities to advertise online.

AOL plans to put a new-media twist on the material by offering trivia contests, polls and other interactive features. Users will be able to e-mail short videos to their friends, such as a clip of a 1987 appearance in Growing Pains by Brad Pitt, with shoulder-length, feathered hair, and clips of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay Leno and other celebrities before they became famous.

AOL's access to Time Warner content is a big reason the Internet service provider has become such a hot commodity. Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. are vying to buy a piece of AOL, for its Web search business and for its ties to traditional media content. AOL plans to promote the service heavily as part of its conversion from a subscriber-only service to a free advertising-supported Web portal.

The project also begins to fulfill some of the promises made during AOL's $99 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2001. The deal's architects proclaimed that Time Warner would create the content and AOL would deliver it over the Internet.

That prediction proved premature, but nearly five years later, the pieces are falling into place. Widespread high-speed Internet connections and improved software have made online video much more closely resemble TV pictures. Kevin Conroy, executive vice president of AOL Media Networks, said the In2TV service would allow full-screen viewing at DVD-quality resolution.

AOL initially will license shows exclusively from the Warner Bros. vault, and the two divisions will share the ad revenue. Eventually, AOL wants to expand its offerings by including TV programs from other studios.

Internet advertisers have been clamoring for more high-quality video on which to place their ads, and presenting shows that have a history on television could draw in marketers who have been reluctant to pitch their products online, said Toby Gabriner, president of the ad agency Carat Fusion.

"What we're seeing now is that the big media companies realize they cannot hold back content and deliver it in the way they always have," he said. "The Internet is giving this content a place to live and to be served up in a way that it couldn't be otherwise."

There are significant challenges to bringing TV programs online, such as clearing the digital rights to the music used in the shows. AOL and Warner Bros. executives said they began talking about such a partnership two years ago but that it took this long to figure out the business model and clear the rights.

Chris Gaither and Meg James write for the Los Angeles Times.

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