Tuned In

They're Not Reruns, They're iReruns!

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Today Apple computer announced
its long-awaited video iPod
, which will no doubt, like every
new Apple release, be thoroughly coated in the slaver of admiring
journalists before it hits the shelves. What most grabbed my attention,
though, was a new feature that has the potential to iTunes-ify network
TV. Thanks to a deal with ABC, iPod owners will be able to buy episodes
of shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives the day after they air, for
$1.99 a pop.

It’s an
intriguing deal, and probably a boon for fans without TiVos. (Though
you’d think the overlap between TiVo and iPod owners would be fairly
high, no?) But I immediately thought: why not take it further? Why not
let people pay $1.99—or more—to watch a show the day before it airs? Sure, some folks might pony up for a
glorified rerun. But how many Lost fanatics would gladly pay every week—essentially subscribing to a network show—for the chance to find
out whether Michelle Rodriguez is evil, or why Daniel Dae-Kim is
suddenly speaking English? A day late, a Survivor elimination is old
news; a day early, it’s insider information.

I’m sure
there would be problems with this model, but they could be surmounted
if there were enough money in it. Some shows finish production close to
air time, but if the price was right a network could bump up the
deadlines. Piracy would obviously be a concern, but that’s already a problem for all electronic media. And if it caught on, conceivably a show’s ratings would
drop, perhaps enough that it might have to lower its ad rates. But
would that we all had such "problems"—there’d be a new, potentially
much more remunerative revenue stream. (Who’s to say you couldn’t
sell ads on the video podcasts?) And we all know how miserable HBO is
because it sells shows instead of ads.

It would
certainly be a more sensible pricing structure: pay to watch early, or
watch it with the rest of the proles for free. More important, if
selling episodes digitally caught on—be it through iPod, TiVo or a
cable box—it would be a step toward making network TV something more
like HBO.

Right now,
network shows are rewarded mainly for their breadth of popularity: how
many people watch. (Augmented, of course, by whether the watchers are
the right age.) But pay-cable shows are rewarded for depth of
popularity: how many viewers like it enough to pay for it. This is what
enables high-quality, low-audience shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and
Weeds to survive—they alienate a lot of people, but they also
intensely please enough paying customers.

The iPodding
of TV wouldn’t rescue cult-favorite shows overnight. But eventually it
could be part of a cluster of changes that does so. (DVD sales, for
instance, almost singlehandedly rescued Family Guy from cancellation.)
Not many people, perhaps, would pay to watch a single episode of
According to Jim. But I’ll bet there are plenty of Arrested Development
fanatics who would give you $10, right now, to watch the episodes Fox
has in the can but is holding until the end of baseball season.

To the right
set of people, getting something cool before everyone else does is
worth a lot of money. Don’t believe it? Ask Steve Jobs how many new
iPods he’s selling.

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