Comcast Begins Streaming Your Favorite Shows Online - Legally

As promised, Comcast's online television experiment is rolling out across the nation, part of the industry-wide TV Everywhere initiative designed to keep cable companies relevant in a Web 2.0 world.

Fancast Xfinity TV, as it's called, allows Comcast subscribers to legally watch certain shows online for the first time. For the time being, it's available only to customers who subscribe to both the company's digital cable and Internet services. Within about six months, it should be available to all cable subscribers, Comcast Interactive President Amy Banse told Reuters.

About 30 networks including HBO, Showtime, TNT and AMC are allowing the company to provide access to their shows, though it's up to each network which shows and how many episodes of it. HBO could allow streaming of just the upcoming season of "Big Love," for example, while Showtime could release just the last two seasons of "Californication" and AMC could make all seasons of "Mad Men" available. And maybe HBO wouldn't allow streaming of "True Blood" until shortly before it's back on the air next summer. (Just for the record, a demo showed Xfinity had all seasons of both "The Sopranos" and "Big Love," among others.)

The networks signed on to Comcast's experiment are: A&E, AMC, BBC America, CBS, Cinemax, DIY Network, Fine Living Network, Food Network, Hallmark Channel, HBO, HGTV, History, IFC, MGM Impact, Starz, Sundance Channel, TBS, TNT, WE tv, E! Entertainment, The Style Network, G4 and Fearnet (the last of which is owned by Comcast). Several of the networks are owned by CBS, including Showtime and Sundance.

The biggest source of legal online network content so far has been, the joint project between NBC Universal and Fox, though it has not turned a profit. Comcast's project could, in the end, co-opt Hulu, seeing as Comcast successfully bid for NBC Universal (though that deal still must be approved by a slew of regulators). Or, perhaps, Hulu could co-opt Comcast, as the subscriber model has been highly unsuccessful online in other media industries such as news and music.

The project's money-making ability, beyond subscriber fees, is still in question. Some of the networks involved, including TNT and TBS, are carrying full "ad loads" - i.e., the same number of advertisements they air on television, to see what the market will bear. And Comcast is working with Nielsen to determine how best to measure online ratings and count them toward overall ratings - which are used to determine how much to charge advertisers.