Will windows come crashing down? Not likely.

Posted in DVD, movie theaters, VOD by Diane on December 3, 2009

Those fretting that Comcast will immediately and drastically close theatrical windows once it takes over NBC Universal should take a breath.

Yes, Comcast has been a leading proponent of video on demand, and would like to shorten the theatrical window AND the cable window. But now it will have a big stake in the content creation side as well. And one thing studio execs do NOT want to do is diminish the much larger revenue streams from exhibition and homevideo sales.

Rather, they are engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to adjust to consumer demand for content in home more quickly while also protecting established revenue streams.  (For more on this, read my Variety story from last week here.)

Brian Roberts is not a digital revolutionary. He is, by all accounts, a button-down businessman who wants more control over his company’s destiny. And that he will have control over both sides of the equation. Will he push for premium VOD ahead of disc releases? Probably.

But he’s not the only one interested in that: Several other studios also favor the notion; the MPAA is pushing the FCC for a waiver that would enable them to better control transmission of their movies into TV sets.

Another prediction: Look for further shortening of standard homevideo/VOD windows on big hits to around three months, rather than four. Already we’re seeing signs of that from Paramount, and Bob Iger recently reiterated the need to get movies to consumers sooner, when they are still perceived as fresh, and therefore desirable. The studios have been testing VOD windows and how they affect DVD sales for some time.

But more than one studio honcho believes that DVD sales will bounce back once the economy does. The last thing they want to do is damage that high-margin business with low-cost VOD alternatives.

The reality is likely to be more prosaic than doomsday scenarios.  This is not, Rafat Ali observes in paidContent, a digital play. Nor is Roberts a reckless conglomerator like Charles Bluhdorn, yawns Peter Bart, who worked for the latter at Paramount.

But make no mistake: Roberts does indeed have his eye on the future.

UPDATE: A few more observations: Steve Burke told analysts yesterday that Comcast would indeed play around with VOD windows, the LAT reports. But I still maintain that the company will tread carefully around the theatrical window, and not just offer movies significantly earlier at the same VOD price we’re used to today.

That could indeed “do serious damage to its studio and the film business generally,” as Kim Masters frets in the Daily Beast.

Burke sounded a pragmatic note, telling analysts that there are “a lot of opportunities out there,” but added, “obviously not all of them are going to work.”

Also intriguing: The effect the acquisition will have on streaming windows. Networks are also experimenting with streaming windows, delaying the streaming of certain programs to try and force viewers to watch during primetime. And there’s growing tension between network brass and Hulu, the popular streaming site jointly owned by NBC and Fox. Read more about the impact of the Comcast deal on web streaming in Brian Stelter’s front-page NYT story.


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