NBC Universal said yesterday it would soon permit consumers to download many of NBC's most popular programs to personal computers and other devices - initially free of charge - for one week immediately after their broadcasts.
The service, which is set to start in November after a test period in October, comes less than three weeks after NBC Universal said it was pulling its programs out of the highly successful iTunes service of Apple Inc. That partnership fell apart because of a dispute over Apple's iTunes pricing policies and what NBC executives said were concerns about lack of privacy protection.
NBC's move comes as companies throughout the television business search for new economic models in the face of enormous changes in the business. Networks continue to lose audience share, and viewers - especially many of the highly prized viewers under 30 years old - are increasingly demanding control of their program choices, insisting on being able to watch shows when, where, and how they want.
At the same time viewers are finding more and more ways, like TiVo machines, to avoid watching the commercials that have long provided the bulk of television revenue.
Jeff Gaspin, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, said, "The shift from programmer to consumer controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years."
The new NBC service, called NBC Direct, is planned as a two-pronged approach to give consumers what they want. For no fee, consumers will be able to download NBC programs like "Heroes," "The Office," and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on the night they are broadcast and keep them for seven days.
They would also be able to subscribe to shows, guaranteeing delivery each week.
But those files, which would be downloaded overnight to home computers, would contain commercials that viewers would not be able to skip through.
And the file would not be transferable to a disk or to another computer. The files would degrade after the seven-day period and be unwatchable. "Kind of like 'Mission: Impossible,' only I don't think there would be any explosion and smoke," Gaspin said.
In a second phase of the NBC rollout, customers would pay a fee for downloads of episodes that they would then own and which would be transferable to other devices. NBC hopes to offer this service by mid-2008.
The latter system is what is already available through iTunes.
Chris Crotty, an analyst for iSuppli, a firm that specializes in analysis of new electronic media, argued consumers have shown they are happy with the iTunes service and that it would not be attractive to consumers to have to range far and wide over a number of services to find the programs they want to download.