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ABC's digital frontier: Closed is open

Exec Albert Cheng of the broadcasting heavyweight demonstrates new video player and reveals network's streaming strategy.

ABC TV has apparently embraced the mantra of giving users content when, where, and how they want it.

While Disney-ABC digital media EVP Albert Cheng's keynote speech at Streaming Media West last week at the San Jose Convention Center was laden with PR spin ("first," "most," "great"), he also fessed up that as little as three years ago the network was debating internally whether to even stream shows online. Today, the network of Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Ugly Betty has taken on a strategy of ubiquity.

ABC intends to give viewers control of their viewing experience on any platform, Cheng said. The network is already showing its shows on everything from Facebook to AOL and Veoh, and plans soon to launch a new video player on its own site. This month ABC launched its "Open ABC" initiative, giving access to developers who will "innovate and give access to our shows (in ways) we haven't even thought of yet," such as new forms of 3D visual search and other applications for blogs, fan sites, and social networks.

"ABC isn't just a television brand," he said. "It's a content brand living on any device, and tailored specifically to the consumer and advertiser needs, and optimized for each specific use case and digital platform."

The network's new video player, he said, will offer full screen viewing, enhanced navigation, content recommendations, closed captioning, and embedability. To that last point, we saw a mockup of ABC shows running embedded in the NBC/Fox-owned Hulu, but Cheng ducked out before we could ask him about it. The player will offer other content sharing tools, such as allowing sending of programming to friends and social-networking sites. One feature we haven't seen elsewhere: sharers can specify at what point in the video the shared show will start to play.

Cheng said the network had been the first on iTunes, the first to stream entire shows online, the first to stream in a "720p" format in HD, had the most views of its shows of any network online and continues to lead in attracting unique users, in page views and time spent per user, compared with other networks' sites. And, he said, ABC found that rather than cannibalizing TV viewership, giving away the shows online instead enhances it.

He acknowledged that despite all the openness, some consider ABC's strategy to be largely closed, because it requires viewers to watch in the ABC player, and, of course to watch the ads. "I'm surprised when people talk about our video distribution approach as a closed strategy," he said. "But we're not going to surrender control in a way that surrenders the brand or doesn't support our business."

Digital media industry expert and analyst Dorian Benkoil is the founder of Teeming Media, and the host of media business show Naked Media.