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RealNetworks puts price on "Big Brother"

CBS Television partners with the streaming media company to charge admission fees for Internet video streams of its voyeuristic TV series, "Big Brother 2."

CBS Television has partnered with RealNetworks to charge admission fees for Internet video streams of its voyeuristic TV series, "Big Brother 2," a further sign of content owners attempting to charge for online programming.

Streaming media company RealNetworks plans to offer live video of the reality TV show through its Gold Pass subscription service, which launched last August, for $9.95 per month. CBS will sell standalone access for $19.95 to behind-the-scenes footage of the entire show, which runs for 12 weeks.

A notice on the CBS Web site says that live, unedited video from the show, which debuted in its second season Thursday night, is available online free throughout the weekend.

The subscription service is a first for a major TV network such as Viacom-owned CBS, according to RealNetworks, which has worked with several broadcasters for streaming programming online.

"For die-hard fans...it's a great extension of prime-time television onto the Internet," said Cara Jacobson, a RealNetworks spokeswoman.

Experimenting with such for-fee services is becoming de rigueur for major media companies, which have wrestled with applying fees to a medium that has largely remained free. Such companies have long expected to support online publishing efforts through advertising. But as the ad market turned bitter in the last year, online publishers and broadcasters seeking to attract online viewers increasingly embraced subscriptions as a way to boost earnings. The New York Times, Yahoo, Variety and Inside.com are among those that have started to impose fees for content.

"Every major media company is looking at ways to levy subscriptions on the Internet for programming or content, and that includes newspaper companies and broadcasting companies," said Mark Mooradian, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix.

Broadcasters streaming live video may also be attracted to the subscription model because of the high costs associated with buying bandwidth, which is needed for transmitting video, Mooradian said.

Major League Baseball, for example, partnered with RealNetworks earlier this year to sell season passes for live baseball games over the Net through its GoldPass service.

For CBS, selling passes to a behind-the-scenes video of "Big Brother 2" could hinge on the success of the reality show. The series charts the daily struggles of 12 strangers living together as they compete for $500,000 by avoiding getting kicked out of a heavily bugged house.

Many online fans, however, have said they are not willing to buy the subscription, opting instead to rely on message boards, instant chats and mailing lists to stay tuned to daily events. More than 1,400 consumers have even gone so far as to sign an online petition boycotting the new subscription service. In a petition addressed to CBS sponsors, critics say the subscription fee "is a slap in the face to the online fans that played a huge part in pulling CBS and the original ("Big Brother" show) from the brink of Nielsen ratings failure."

Others say the free version of the live video leaves little to be desired.

"Folks are rather upset that numerous times when conversations or events got interesting, especially sexy talk, the feeds were cut or switched. CBS did this last year. It's stuff they want to save for the show," said Thomas Beard, who runs his own "Big Brother" fan site.

A CBS spokeswoman said a subscription service would serve as a means to safeguard against children viewing mature content that could be seen through all-hours video of the show.