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Resurrecting the WB - Online

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Bet you didn't know you missed it.

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While Warner Bros. (TWX) promised the online video equivalent of a singing, dancing frog, the reality is an ordinary, garden-variety amphibian.

Last week, the company launched TheWB.com, a site featuring ad-supported streaming video of its television shows. Warner Bros. hopes the hip layout and dynamic features will draw in the 18-34 demographic that still remembers that network that folded in 2006.

It's a tall order for a group that barely recalls who James Van Der Beek is.

TheWB.com joins the standard crowd of official network websites that offer full episodes from their lineups - as well as one "unofficial" site that's made a name for itself by offering content from several networks and production companies. Hulu.com, which is backed by Fox (NWS) and NBC (GE), culls hundreds more full-length TV shows and films, garnering 3.2 million unique visitors in July alone. Warner Bros. has a long way to go before it pulls in those kinds of numbers.

TheWB.com gains an edge on Hulu, however, by not having a stupid name.

Though the navigation is slightly counter-intuitive, the content is presented in the usual way. Ads precede the program and interrupt the episodes at commercial breaks. The Flash video player can be displayed full screen, and users will be able to embed the video elsewhere once the site is no longer in beta mode. Full episode embedding, however, won't be possible.

Warner Bros. hopes 2 special features will set their site apart from the rest.

An advanced search engine allows visitors to search through content via several categories, such as show, season, character or location. Every program also has its dialogue automatically transcribed and indexed, which enables the user to search for a word or phrase mentioned in any of the TV shows.

To avoid crashing the site, users are recommended not to search "dude" within The OC.

Another feature the site provides is an embedded version of Adobe Premiere Express that allows visitors to mix and match scenes from separate shows, resulting in a WB-themed Frankenstein's monster. Unless viewers have an insatiable urge to see how Veronica Mars would react to the younger Gilmore girl sneaking out past curfew, there doesn't seem to be much point to this.

Despite these new features, TheWB.com hardly offers anything revolutionary to the online video world. The market is still hindered by limited availability of titles - at least in the legal, non-BitTorrent sense. Streaming video has made a lot of progress in the last few years, but it's hardly garnering the number of viewers commanded by regular TV...yet.

Minyanville President Kevin Wassong, founder and former CEO of the Interactive Division at J. Walter Thompson, expressed his doubts about online video: "The infrastructure is still not there," Wassong says. "While broadband penetration continues to grow at a rapid pace, we're still a few years away from mass [appeal]. The irony of ironies is online is the only medium today where you can't fast-forward through commercials."

Wassong reasons, "Full acceptance hinges on speed and picture quality. The saving grace of TV right now is HD. Until a level of parity exists in the picture quality and delivery speed, television doesn't have to start writing its obit."
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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