Does Retro TV Compute?

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Larry Jones heads a pair of networks that thrive on classic TV shows. Not surprisingly, the president of TV Land and Nick at Nite likes the idea of being able to sift through thousands of episodes of Alice and other vintage Warner Bros. programs on America Online, which will happen when it rolls out its In2TV service in January.

But Jones, whose services frequently rank among Nielsen Media Research’s 10 most-watched cable networks, is also a pragmatist. He says he doesn’t believe viewers will go to the effort to find shows online.

“Who is going to want to deal with that technology?’’ said Jones. “The great thing about Nick at Nite [and] TV Land is you sit back, relax and just enjoy great TV shows. Essentially what [In2TV] does — you have to become your own programmer,” remembering whether you have already watched episode 14 of Alice or not.

The movement of such vintage fare as Welcome Back, Kotter or Spenser: for Hire onto the Internet might actually be a boon to cable programmers that also rely on the Warner Brothers library for shows. One such network is American Life TV, which already includes Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man in its lineup.

American Life, formerly known as GoodLife TV and Nostalgia TV, only reaches 10 million subscribers today. But it caters to an audience aged 35 to 44 that should remember such shows from their youth.

“We’re very excited about the explosion of this whole demographic being able to see shows that they grew up with. I think it will be to our benefit that we’ll get more publicity for the library of the shows,” said American Life vice president of marketing Darlene Chapman Holmes.

AOL is positioning In2TV, which it announced Nov. 7, as a new way to distribute TV programming. In2TV, which will be found online at www.aol.com, will initially feature vintage TV programs on six channels. Eventually, the site could feature original programming series as well.

Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff said watching long-form programs on a PC has its drawbacks — namely, asking the viewer to watch a show meant for a 32-inch screen on one that might only be 13 inches across. But he said he believes AOL could draw viewers to In2TV.

Watching 30 minutes of video on a small screen “requires a certain amount of patience. But I have learned over the last year that you can’t really put too many limits on what people want to watch on their computers; that there is a market for this,” Bernoff said.

The market for the Warner Bros. library is not likely to be as large online as on cable or satellite, says Jones.

“Warner Bros. charges substantial fees that we pay to acquire a lot of these shows. At this point I can’t see how they could possibly make that kind of revenue stream [through In2TV],” Jones said.

AOL and Warner may be a special case, economically. Both are owned by Time Warner, the publishing and entertainment giant. And AOL has to find a way to differentiate itself from online rivals, such as Google Inc. or Yahoo Inc., which are gearing up to provide video content online.

Other programmers may be more inclined to wait and see if the Web becomes a viable, profitable medium of distribution.

“We’re interested in offering our content in any secure platform, as long as the business model is right and there’s a meaningful number of consumers that want to go there,” said NBC Universal Cable president David Zaslav. “What we need to figure out is how people consume traditional TV content on the Net, and what’s the best business model to get it to them.”

Zaslav announced an agreement last week to supply movies from Universal Films and specials such as Jerry Springer: Uncensored to new peer-to-peer Internet company Wurld Media. But NBC — which also recently cut a deal to supply repeats of its top cable and broadcast series to DirecTV for 99 cents apiece through digital-video-record downloads — hasn’t yet agreed to supply TV episodes to Wurld Media, AOL or any other Internet company.

In2TV will launch with 300 Warner Bros. series in January, several of which have run previously on Nick at Nite and TV Land. American Life shows Welcome Back, Kotter, Maverick, Kung Fu, The F.B.I., F Troop and Chico and the Man, all of which will be seen on In2TV.

AOL’s move may not be that worrisome to the cable networks, because the shows haven’t generated huge ratings.

Nick at Nite and TV Land have run six of the flagship In2TV series — Chico and the Man, Welcome Back, Kotter, The Fugitive, Head of the Class, Perfect Strangers and Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

TV Land pulled Chico from its lineup from 2001 after a short run, in which it was watched by less than half a percent of the households that could view the programs in primetime. That was less than half of Nick at Nite’s typical primetime that year, a time when the channel tallied a household rating of 0.95.

Welcome Back, Kotter ran on Nick at Nite during the first and second quarters of 1996, averaging a 1.21 rating in primetime. That underperformed the network’s 1.5 average primetime rating that year by 19%, spokesman Paul Ward said.

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