Friday, August 27, 2010

Soapbox: Why Apple's rumored TV rentals could be a great thing

Yesterday Apple, Inc announced Sept 1st as the date for their annual fall product shindig. While not on par with WWDC or their old MacWorld  fetes,  the Sept gig has for the past several years been when the company puts the focus on their ipod lineup and various associated products such as upgrades  to iTunes (both software and the various stores), the Apple TV and so on.

It is expected that this year they will give us the release date for the previously promised iOS 4.0 for the iPad as well as a stack of other goodies. Among the rumors are the elimination of the ipod shuffle in exchange for a new smaller, touchscreen Nano, a Touch with a front facing camera  for Facetime chatting and perhaps a back camera for photo taking  and a new, smaller Apple TV unit. But the big rumor getting a lot of talk around the blogosphere is Apple's long rumored attempts  to put themselves up as a competitor for Netflix, Hulu and even Cable itself. And while I don't particularly care one way or the other about most of the rumors, this last one has piqued my interest greatly.

The dominant scheme presented  in the rumors is the ability to rent a show (ie series) for a minimal cost per month, most often believed  to be $1. So for $1 a month you would have access to all episodes of say, Gray's Anatomy or Criminal Minds or the upcoming Hawaii 5-0  and so on. Now they don't say if its current season only or the entire library of episodes or even if Apple has plans to add to their library. But even if restricted to the most recent season of any currently airing title (and perhaps the entire library of titles currently not on the air), the notion is an exciting one. Episodes would be ad free just as they are on Netflix, but (if the rumors are to be believed) unlike Netflix they would not be streamed but would be timed files not unlike Apple's movie rentals. Using such a system  would allow a viewer to download and watch offline. Or even potentially start an episode on the computer and transfer it to an iDevice to continue to the end.

And a system like this could be potentially better for the consumers. Cable service is typically at least $50 a month just for the basics, adding a premium channel such as HBO or Showtime adds easily another $10 a month per channel. That's not to bad if one is a couch potato and just watches tons of tv all day and night but lets say that the average viewer watches 2 hours of tv a night, all seven nights a week. That's 14 hours of tv. Even if a couple of hours are sitcoms, we're looking at $20 tops under this alleged Apple scheme. Huge savings.

But the really exciting part of this idea, if it comes to fruition, is the implication that perhaps the networks are finally ready to take online viewing seriously. And by seriously, I mean to give credit to shows for their online viewership.  The Nielsen system is totally out of date and behind the times and yet it and the accompanying ad money is all that is used in the network 'make budget' schemes that judge whether a show will continue. Even the viewer numbers presented by the ratings are not correct as they are extrapolated from a sample that is based on the US Census and thus anywhere from 1 to 10 years out of date. Apple would conceivably be able to provide the networks with real viewer numbers based on how many people are 'subscribing' to an individual show, whether that number goes up or down each month, and even perhaps basic demographic information. And it would be real numbers, not some '100 sample viewers which would be 1 million viewers if our sample is correct' numbers.  Plus there is cash money attached to each show which could be theoretically added to a show's debt if the network was so inclined. And I hope they are.  The time has come to give shows all the credit they deserve. With luck, this is a step in the right direction.

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