Last week Fox announced it plans to make 100% of its prime time programming available online within the next three years. While this is the most ambitious move yet by a major network to embrace online programming, what sets Fox apart from the other networks is the way it has dealt with its local affiliates.
While NBC, ABC, and CBS have been selectively testing limited programming downloads (to the dismay of their local affiliates), Fox has been working to obtain affiliate buy-in before making any moves online. The result is an agreement that has Fox sharing online revenue with local affiliates in exchange for the right to eventually make all of its programming available on the web.
Presumably the other networks are in similar negotiations, but one has to wonder whether those negotiations will be any easier now that the networks have made their initial move without first consulting their affiliates.
While Fox’s approach might look like a win for local affiliates, the nature of online programming raises questions about the very concept of network affiliates. In a world where consumers can obtain programming from the web, iTunes, cable, and satellite, do networks still need local broadcast affiliates?
Fox has reportedly agreed to make some programming available through their affiliate’s websites. Presumably affiliates will have an opportunity to monetize the additional traffic this will drive to their sites. In reality, this will create a situation where Fox’s affiliates will be competing against each other across markets. I might watch The Simpsons on fox11.com in Los Angeles, or I might watch it on fox5ny.com in New York.
Once network programming moves online the traditional geographic territories that have been assigned to local broadcast affiliates no longer apply.
It’s possible that affiliates of the other networks will realize that online programming will all but eliminate their exclusive right to offer network programming in their respective broadcast territories. If that happens you can expect that those affiliates will put up more of a fight than Fox’s affiliates did. In other words, it could be a very long time before the vast majority of network programming becomes available online.