Is nothing sacred?
iTunes's one-price-fits-all model has long been an accepted fixture of the digital world...but no longer. The lure of cornering the download video market has tempted them into a variable price model but at what cost? Ed Waller reports.
Apple's iTunes can be flexible on pricing after all, it seems. After much huffing and puffing from the market-leading video download service's content suppliers, led by the major Hollywood studios, iTunes has moved away from its previously sacrosanct flat-rate pricing model to the more varied one that the film and TV studios have demanded for months.
Last month in the US, Apple partnered with cable channel HBO, for the first time moving away from its previous US$1.99 flat-rate model for selling TV shows - a factor which in part prompted irate NBC Universal to take its bat and ball home by pulling its TV shows from iTunes. The addition of HBO titles such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and Rome at a premium price of US$2.99 came after NBCU quietly reintroduced its shows on to iTunes in the UK, with TV series Heroes and House priced at the £1.89 standard rate per episode but several of its older titles charged at just £1.19. Taking your bat and ball home often works, particularly when they are so popular with iTunes downloaders.
Then earlier this month Sony Pictures become the latest to add programming to Apple iTunes in the UK, with series including Damages and The Larry Sanders Show joining the line-up. The Sony shows, which also include comedies 10 Items or Less and NewsRadio plus animated series The Jackie Chan Adventures, cost between £1.19 and £1.89 per episode, underscoring Apple's recent shift in pricing policy. Furthermore, movies from 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount and MGM were also added to iTunes UK and will be made available to download on the same day as their DVDs are released.
It's not just US series and movies that are driving use of iTunes on this side of the Atlantic, however. Apple is to add iconic kids marionette show Thunderbirds to its UK iTunes store, as part of a range of classic ITV catalogue shows set to appear over the coming months. Over the course of the year, iTunes will add ITV catalogue titles including 80s political sitcom The New Statesman, 90s comedy Jeeves & Wooster, 70s sci-fi show Space 1999, and long-running crime drama Inspector Morse.
But while the US studios and UK networks now seem happy, it appears that Apple still has some way to go in working out a model that satisfies everyone. While the addition of Larry Sanders has been welcomed by many iTunes users, many point out that even with individual episodes costing a reduced rate of £1.49, this means the whole collection offered costs £34.27, while the DVD version costs just £18.17 on Amazon and comes with extra features. There may be life in the old plastic disc yet!
But while almost everything Apple has done has worked like magic, the company's recent foray into set-top boxes to bring your video downloads from your Mac to your TV set hasn't really taken off. TV on the internet is almost a given these days, not quite passé perhaps but an undeniable reality nonetheless. The BBC iPlayer is rocketing and YouTube continues to balloon.
The next step, ironically, is getting web-based video on to TV screens, welcoming it back to where it belongs, in the corner of the living room. This was something Apple boss Steve Jobs recognised with the launch of his Apple TV set-top boxes last year. While the first iteration of the product misfired, what he called "Apple TV take two" arrived in retail stores earlier this year.
Jobs admitted the first version's shortcomings at the Macworld conference in January: "We've all tried to figure out how to get movies from the internet to TV but we've all missed. No one has succeeded yet," he said. "We tried with Apple TV. We designed it as an accessory for iTunes and your computer. It's not what people wanted."
The second version of the device offers a direct connection to iTunes, allowing the box to tap into a new movie rental service without the need for a computer, much like the movie-on-demand services already offered by the likes of Virgin and Sky.
Jobs, however, would have consumers believe Apple TV is the best and only way to get on-demand video from the internet on to their TV screens, but the truth is there are plenty of other options out there and many offer a far wider range of choice. Maybe this hiccup in Apple's web video strategy will finally allow other companies a route into a sector that has so far been dominated by iTunes?