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NBC's iTunes Snub Devalues Viewership

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 28, 2010 5:00 AM PT

As Apple is getting ready to ship its newly redesigned Apple TV before the end of this week, I can't help but wonder what world NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker is living on. I think he's in a slightly parallel universe -- unless I'm the one in a parallel universe and I happen to see the ripples of the real universe on the Web every now and then. Either way, I'm having a hard time seeing how Apple's new 99 US cent TV show rental program can "devalue" NBC content. Seriously. According to reports stemming from a Goldman Sachs investor conference, Zucker said his organization believes that consumers who are willing to pay 99 cents to rent a show would devalue NBC's content.

NBC's iTunes Snub Devalues Viewership

I'm scratching my head here.

Let's Rewind

For those not following the Apple TV hobby, here's the quick history: Several years ago Apple released a set-top box for buying and renting media from the iTunes store, as well as streaming video from connected Macs and PCs. Like most Apple products, it's mostly focused on the Apple ecosystem, and while it does more than just let you buy and rent movies and TV shows, that's its primary gig.

Finally, after a series of minor interface updates, Apple is now about to debut a newly redesigned Apple TV that's smaller and is a streaming set-top box. It still works with your media on your Mac and PC, but it no longer has internal storage for long-term media. For instance, it also streams content from Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe. Streaming is where it's at, Apple is saying.

To go along with it, earlier this month Apple introduced a new 99-cent TV show rental program that also works via iTunes and newer iPod, iPad and iPhone devices that run the latest i OS operating system.

Right now, you can rent TV shows from ABC, ABC Family, Fox, Disney Channel, and BBC America.

You can't rent shows from NBC or CBS.

How Do You Get TV Shows, Anyway?

There are several ways to get TV shows, the most traditional of which is to wait until a network broadcasts over the air (free) or via cable or satellite TV subscriptions. You can also sometimes view them via streaming video over the Internet through a variety of free and paid solutions like Hulu.com or a network's very own streaming video site. For instance, I very much like the SouthParkStudios.com free streaming service, but not many shows and networks are this proactive.

You can also wait for a DVD to be released of a previous season, which is generally expensive and price-prohibitive for many consumers. Plus, the shows are technically locked to the DVD, meaning a consumer has to rip and convert them in order to play them on another device.

Oh, consumers can also search the wasteland of cable and satellite TV channels, surfing for old reruns of previous seasons.

In some instances, consumers can buy old episodes that can't be found elsewhere online via iTunes for $1.99 for standard definition and $2.99 for HD.

Finally, sometimes you can't get the content all.

For instance, I happened to stumble across "The Mentalist" during its second season. I was able to track down all the current season two episodes and get caught up, though I don't remember how, exactly. I also set my DVR to record old season one episodes that might have aired, but I only caught a few. I even tried to buy episodes on Apple iTunes but found out that "The Mentalist" wasn't available on iTunes. What does this mean? It means that I couldn't find the season premier of "The Mentalist" at all, and it took me for freakin' ever to figure out most of the backstory so I could properly enjoy the new shows.

So now I'm a fan, but it was a 50-50 issue. I could easily have ditched the show altogether.

Here's Why Zucker Is Loony

Here's why I think Zucker is loony. Apple's new TV show rental service has barely been available, and it's only available for iTunes and mobile iOS 4 devices, and yet I've already rented a couple dozen TV shows, and am currently set to download and rent at least another dozen, including a movie, before I slow down.

Last year, I stumbled upon "Castle", which features Nathan Fillion, who was Captain Hammer in the brilliant Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. Like with "The Mentalist," I was playing catch-up. I caught some previous seasons, and I bought a few of the early season two episodes that I missed. But most of season one I never found, at least not for the price of $1.99 an episode, which is usually just a little too high for me to pay. When the entire first season was available for 99-cent rentals, I became a renting fool. Now I'm caught up, and best yet, I'm pretty much a "Castle" fan for life.

Best yet, I know that if I travel and miss an episode of the new season three of "Castle," I can easily rent it. Bad weather and the satellite or power fails? No worries, iTunes has me covered. On the go? I can get it on my iPhone. Tell me how that's not a win for ABC. Most Monday nights I'll be camped in front of the TV watching "Castle" anyway, eager to get the episode in real time, watching those advertisements.

The Trickle Effect

For TV in general, there's an awesome trickledown effect. Take Nathan Fillion. Turns out he was also in Joss Whedon's short-lived "Firefly" TV series, on which the movie "Serenity" is based (I'm a new fan, so I don't yet know all the details -- discovery in process). I just rented the pilot episode of Firefly, and I'm hooked. And now I'm a Joss Whedon fan, too. Meanwhile, I'm hooked for one key reason: Easy iTunes rentals. If I had to buy the series for $21.99, I would have passed -- my internal clicks-are-really-cash flag would have stopped me, and I would have forgotten about "Firefly" entirely. As it is, I'll be renting the movie "Serenity," too.

By becoming a part of iTunes, "Castle's" iTunes rental option has helped me become a much more active TV show consumer. When it's too hard, I tune out. That's the lesson for Zucker. I want content in a variety of easy ways, and iTunes rentals are near the top of my list.

Oh, and one more thing: I know advertising dollars are worth a lot of money, and maybe Netflix is shelling out for the privilege of streaming TV shows. But I know this: I won't be watching any NBC shows on Monday nights. No ad revenue from me. I'll be watching "Castle," one way or another, and ABC will get my eyeballs for ads, and when I'm busy, I'll rent the episodes I missed.

Now, if only "Terriers" was available for rent ...


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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