TV Tries to Get Serious about the Net

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This year’s fall season is being sent all over the Web, in varyingly liberal and sparing doses, as today’s Hollywood Reporter describes it. That’s not to say traditional, irrationally expensive and erratically effective marketing is being dropped; NBC is still spending $8 million on Chuck popcorn bags, Rolling Stone adverts, New York subway wrappers, and DVD giveaways, reports Broadcasting & Cable.

Meanwhile, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have gotten a second chance to cash in on their massively popular 10-year-old South Park series, most of the rights to which they signed away long ago. The two have inked a deal with Comedy Central — with whom they’ve long had a difference of opinion about the value of illegal downloads — worth $75 million over four years to extend their series and related concepts on the Web, mobile phone, and video games, reports the New York Times today. In addition to upfront cash, they’re getting a highly unusual 50-50 advertising revenue split.

Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks Entertainment, acknowledged that the 50-50 digital deal, which was approved by Philippe Dauman, CEO of parent company Viacom (VIA), would set a precedent. “If this is seen as a bold stroke, all the better, because it’s going to take bold thinking to move ahead,” he said. But he said it was justified by the “South Park” team’s stellar track record and by the changing balance of power between the buyers and creators of entertainment.

Taken together, the deals show television is at a turning point, with the networks accepting that new means of distribution will have to figure into their business plans. Well, duh. Still, these are all case-by-case arrangements, and it’s unclear which will have staying power. As the old guard seeks new ways to hold onto talent and find audiences, we might for once stay tuned.