The Problem with Video

November 25th, 2008

Most things follow the rule that the more consumed of it, the less value it gives — but there is something magical about good music. It is incredible and relevant every time it is listened to, no matter how much it is played. Good music is timeless.

That is why we buy permanent copies of music we enjoy. As usual, Jobs explains this nicely:

People don’t want to buy their music as a subscription. They bought 45’s; then they bought LP’s; then they bought cassettes; then they bought 8-tracks; then they bought CD’s. They’re going to want to buy downloads. People want to own their music.

But video — TV shows and movies — has always been different. With video, we are used to streaming content in a general sense. That is, whether we watch shows and movies on television, go to the movie theatre, or rent movies, we are consuming a one-time copy of the media. Occasionally, when we really like a movie, we buy it on DVD.

So why do we consume video differently than we do music? Unlike music, TV shows and movies are mostly only entertaining to watch once. If you have already seen it, you know the mystery’s answer, you know whether the protagonist succeeds, you know… everything; rather than a vibrant, enchanting, grabbing world, the show or film is merely a replay of a sequence of events you have already memorized. After the first play, most shows and films lose their magic. Even the best shows and films end up this way; I own the X-Files box set, but after finishing it I have not watched it again. It does not contain any undiscovered secrets.

This explains why Netflix, which allows people to watch a movie or show and move on to another when they are finished for a reasonable monthly cost, has seen so much success while the AppleTV, with a much better experience, has seen only modest sales — people are not interested in buying movies and TV shows. They want to stream them.

The Problem

I am a college student. I do not own a TV, and do not have cable. I do own a Mac and an Xbox 360, though, and together, they are the hub of my media-consumption. I stream music to the Xbox 360, which plays over my speakers; I play Hulu and iTunes rentals on my Mac; and now, I watch Netflix Instant Watch on the Xbox.

Because neither Hulu nor Netflix Instant Watch have anywhere approaching a complete inventory of movies and TV shows, I have to switch between four different sources — Hulu, Netflix, iTunes store, and DVDs. To watch iTunes or Hulu, I must connect my Mac to my display; to watch DVDs or Netflix, I must connect my Xbox 360.

The reason I have this convoluted setup, though, is because each of these services — Hulu, Netflix, iTunes — is providing a piece of the hole. Hulu and Netflix nail the streaming model; it is free or affordable to watch content on them, and the streaming quality is great. iTunes nails the library of content — they have a large selection of TV shows and movies.

So here is the problem: video is tied down, and has been since the DVD was invented. Streaming video is connected to its provider, and can only play on whatever devices it approves; downloaded video is restricted by DRM. The result is it is impossible to combine the different services into a cohesive whole.

As it stands now, video is broken.

Apple’s Subscription

As long as studios sign exclusive distribution contracts, so their movie or TV show is only on one online media service, we are going to have this problem. But Apple has already solved it in the interim.

The iTunes store is big enough to where most studios want their content to be in it. NBC pulled their content from iTunes and tried to do it alone, and then realized that was not such a smart thing to do. Apple can build a store with most TV shows and a good selection of movies. In fact, they already have.

They also have a great way of bringing it to the TV — AppleTV. It is affordable, has an excellent UI, and has the power to be the only TV media device you need. The problem here is not the AppleTV.

The problem is iTunes. While iTunes has an excellent selection of TV shows and movies, it is currently a buy-per-episode or movie system. Movie rentals are certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Paying $1.99 per TV show does not work with how most people watch TV — it is a music model. People like trying out new shows to see if they like it. If they do, they continue watching; if not, that is okay, because it did not cost them anything. Unless you like wasting $1.99, though, that simply is not possible on iTunes.

Even if you really like a TV show, usually you do not want to keep a copy of it, so the $1.99 is still a little much.

So this is what I propose. iTunes should have a subscriptions, where you pay something like $15 per month, and can watch as many TV shows as you want, and x amount of movies. There should be different plan levels, but unlimited TV shows should be the constant factor, while the number of movies changes.1

Of course, you can still buy TV shows and movies like normal — these are additional options.

With good reason, I believe Apple is hesitant to introduce subscriptions in iTunes because it complicates it. But if kept simple and connected to its purpose, this would be incredibly useful. For much less than cable, and much more conveniently than Netflix, you would be able to watch as much TV shows as you want, and a few movies a month, all over the same box which brings your music, photos and personal video to your home theatre. The AppleTV would be incredible.

This, I think, is what the AppleTV plus iTunes is supposed to be. and I hope we see it soon, because my current system is wearing my patience thin.

  1. I envision 3 options, all with unlimited TV shows:

    1. $15 per month, with 3 movies a month;
    2. $30 per month, with 6 movies a month;
    3. $50 a month, with unlimited movies.

    I think the sweet spot would be $30. []