Magic Number Online: Five Free TV Episodes

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If you’re a cable network, and you’re charging people to get your programming on TV, how much free stuff can you give away on the Internet without hurting the core business?

The magic number seems to be five, according to Craig Engler, SVP and general manager of Sci Fi Digital, as in five free episodes of a current (or recent) TV show at any given time.

Well, sometimes fewer: On Hulu, for example, Sci Fi as of Friday afternoon offers four full-length episodes of Ghost Hunters and just three of Battlestar Galactica.

The point is, that general ballpark is about the extent of what we should expect to see online for free, according to Engler, whom I met with earlier this week.

“I think we’ve reached the limit of what free content will be available online,” he said. “Right now, it’s additive. It’s a way to catch up. The thinking is, any more than that and you might start to hurt your business.”

The way to reinforce the business, the industry believes, is to give only subscribers who pay for cable TV access to the goods on the Internet — and we’re talking more than five episodes, one presumes.

Comcast’s OnDemand Online is designed to stream a wealth of TV episodes through Fancast, while TWC’s approach, TV Everywhere, is supposed to authenticate users centrally and allow them to access content wherever it resides. (See Comcast Exec: Internet TV Plans Preserve Cable Model and Time Warner Cable’s Stern: ‘TV Everywhere’ Must Be Easy, Scalable.)

Meanwhile, love it or hate it, a new name is in store for The channel’s home URL will change over in July to, when the network undergoes its rebranding. (See Sci Fi Channel’s Morphing to Syfy On Air, Online In July.)

Hopefully the name-change won’t derail the brand’s online momentum. has been racking up its best numbers ever: In the first quarter, the site averaged 4.2 million unique users (up 11% year over year), 6.8 million visits (up 16%), 40.7 million page views (up 26%) and 6.9 million videos streams (up 31%).