TV is about to take a major turn with pay-per-show

Now there's hope for the cult shows, the ones the networks said not enough people watched, and canceled.

Now there's hope for adult shows, the ones the networks shied away from supporting for fear the morality police would make their lives miserable.

Now there's hope for programs that don't repeat well, and there's hope for shows taking political stands or espousing "unpopular" positions.

Pay-per-show is here. And it just might be TV's salvation as the medium forges into its swirling second half-century.

The deals have been coming fast and furious. ABC struck first Oct. 12, making available $1.99 episode downloads of hot hits "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," plus Disney Channel tween faves, for portable viewing on Apple's new video iPod.

Last week, CBS and NBC jumped into the game. CBS plans to offer 99-cent aired episodes, including "CSI," "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," for on-demand viewing by digital cable customers of Comcast, the nation's largest multisystem operator. NBC has allied with DirecTV's satellite service to offer "Law & Order" series, "The Office," "Monk," "Battlestar Galactica" and other of the week's shows to homes with the new DirecTV Plus digital recorder, through which viewers can "rent" an episode for 24 hours for 99 cents.

These announcements are just the first volley in what should become a wild war of video delivery platforms, formats, prices and options. Expect it to shake up network TV even more than when cable grew into a formidable competitor in original production.

"The Sopranos," anyone? Around-the-clock news? TV targeted specifically at kids, cooks, toon-heads, golfers or soap nuts? Those notions sounded crazy once, and not so long ago, either. Cable innovations such as CNN and ESPN are only 25 years old, and big-time scripted series such as "The Sopranos" have been around less than a decade.

Now it's time for the next step: where consumers drop their money not on a chosen channel such as HBO, but on specific series they want. While the networks recently agreed only to the per-episode purchase of existing hits -- to catch that "Survivor" twist you missed or study clues in "Lost" -- the real promise here is direct viewer support of programs themselves. And not through mass ratings that translate into ad rates, a system that's oblique at best and rewards such creatively indifferent attributes as "tonnage" (total eyeballs watching) and "demographics" (specific kinds of viewers).

Imagine being able to put your money specifically where your viewing passions are. "Farscape" fans bought trade paper ads last year, pleading for their beloved show's renewal after Sci Fi dropped it. Suppose they'd been able to pledge that money directly to the show itself. If a million devotees agreed to pay $1.99 per episode, that show could keep right on existing. Now FX isn't renewing its critically acclaimed Iraq war drama, "Over There," because the series couldn't build beyond its audience of 2 million. As a clearly saddened FX chief John Landgraf noted, "While we are passionately committed to fostering great television, we are an advertiser-supported nework, and the size of our audience is vital to our bottom line." But what if even half those viewers found "Over There" rewarding enough to pay for, directly? Especially with fewer or no commercial interruptions?

We just might see great TV expand and explode in all kinds of surprising ways. The pay-per-show model is something I've touted before, but from a sort of "Gee, I wish" attitude. Suddenly, it's real and burgeoning, thanks to digital cable's on-demand ease, the ability of cable/satellite to "push" programs directly onto homes' digital-video-recorder boxes, broadband's increasingly speedy downloads and a host of new personal/portable viewing devices.

A future era might let us subscribe to shows on a seasonal basis or test-drive pilot episodes. It could let us buy at a basic price that includes ads or a premium price to eliminate them. Episodes might be of flexible lengths, rather than trimmed or stretched to fit a specific time slot. There could even be G-rated versions for the easily offended and R-rated versions for more daring adults. Think of the music model, where new songs debut on the radio at the same time you can buy them in CD or MP3 form for listening however you want.

But I'm still dreaming, to some extent. The number of shows being offered in these new applications is seriously limited. All the series are owned by the network corporations that air them. Throw other studios into the mix, not to mention industry unions and other parties to the perceived proceeds, and a lot has to shake out before pay-per-show is widely possible.

The gates are open, though. The networks know their model has to adapt to today's more fragmented viewership, reduced rerun tolerance and commercial-skipping technology. Rather than dragging their heels and stubbornly clinging to old ways, the networks have just leaped into the cauldron of change. Let's follow 'em and see what bubbles up.

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