CBS has launched an online promotional initiative called EyeLab to create and distribute clips derived from its television programmes. Based on the assumption that short-form clips are the most viewed videos available on the internet, it goes against the trend of streaming full-length episodes online.

“Recognizing that short-form content is what our viewers want online, we’re committed to bringing CBS fans short, easy-to-digest clips–which they can take and mash up, rework, re-edit and, no doubt, inspire us with their creativity,” said Anthony Zuiker, executive producer and creator of the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise. “Using the web as a direct engagement platform with those who care the most about the show is a perfect way to bring the TV experience online and in turn, to learn from fans.”

Apparently, CBS says the inspiration for EyeLab was a clip created by a viewer from the United Kingdom titled ‘Endless Caruso One Liners’ featuring a montage of CSI: Miami actor David Caruso delivering a sequence of lines. The clip has been viewed a million times on YouTube.

CBS has hired a number of editors to create similar clips for EyeLab. They will also distribute clips created by real viewers.

“EyeLab will allow our marketing and production team to tap into a vast new pool of creative resources while attracting new eyeballs to our TV content in a format that works on interactive platforms,” said George Schweitzer, the president of CBS Marketing. “Online video is not just about TV shows as we know them and EyeLab content is not for TV. We can harness the passion and creativity of our shows’ biggest fans, and also learn a lot about their interests and talents.”

“We are well aware that the internet is the world’s best laboratory and we want to encourage our loyal and passionate fans to lend their creative ideas and talents in a way that makes CBS content their own,” added Patrick Keane, the chief marketing officer of CBS Interactive. “By inviting fans to participate, we expect to grow our already vast content slate tremendously. CBS was ahead in massive, open distribution and this represents the next step–catering content better for our users based on what we’re learning about them.”

The CBS initiative comes as NBC prepares to launch its Hulu joint venture with News Corporation, offering full-length shows online through a portal and a number of distribution partners. However, NBC has also decided to offer its own shows through its own NBC Direct web site.

The American networks have embraced streaming full episodes of their shows, rather than offering downloads, based on an advertiser-supported model. CBS has its own online video site, innertube.

It is still unclear whether viewers will want to watch full-length episodes online, or whether streaming them in this way will be economic. The networks point to some success in delivering hundreds of millions of streams over the last year, but this is in the context of YouTube streaming around two billion clips a month.

So creating clips from shows and distributing mashups contributed by viewers could provide CBS with a cost-effective way of promoting its programmes, provided that they appear authentic. The problem is that users will soon spot a promotional plug as opposed to a contributed compilation. The real innovation may lie in clearing the rights to allow users to create and distribute tributes to their favourite programmes.