Tuned In

NBC Direct: Freedom's Just Another Word for, Um, Slightly Less Freedom

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Good for the Panthers or bad for the Panthers? NBC Photo: Bill Records

NBC says all the right things in its announcement that, this fall, it will make downloads of its shows available for free through the NBC Direct service. Viewers today want “more control,” says Vivi Zigler, Executive Vice President of NBC Digital Entertainment. NBC-Universal television president Jeff Gaspin tells the New York Times, “The shift from programmer to consumer controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years.”

So what, exactly, does the consumer get to control? Whether or not to download the shows from NBC. Not how long to keep them–they disappear after a week–nor whether to watch the ads, which are unskippable. Nor, importantly, to pay cash money for commercial-free episodes [Update: through iTunes], since NBC recently pulled out of Apple’s iTunes store in a pricing dispute. In other words, “control” = somewhat less control than you had last season (when you could already stream many NBC shows free online). [Update: saybo reminds me in the comments that NBC has also struck a deal to sell episodes through Amazon Unbox, though that site has its own limitations compared with iTunes.]

Unlike the former, streaming arrangement, of course, this deal at least gives you a free file that resides on your computer for seven days. If it’s a Windows PC. I’m a Mac user, so I won’t be checking out this service–but whatever, I’ve accepted that as my lot in life. If you want to watch on an iPod, though, you’re also out of luck. And we all know that nobody uses those.

NBC says it will enable Mac and portable-player use in “future versions” of NBC Direct. Also, eventually, there will probably be the option to buy shows: sayeth the press release, “These paid business models may include download-to-own, rental and subscription.” If they do, eventually, all to the good. For now, though, what we have–shows with must-see ads, playable on a proprietary NBC player–seems like one step forward, two steps back, with an undetermined number of steps to be taken forward in the future, if we can make the numbers work out.

That said, I’m all for networks trying more alternative means of distribution, because in the long run it means more alternative means of keeping good shows on the air. In the short run, though, I worry what the possible hit to downloads, from the loss of iTunes, may mean to shows like Friday Night Lights, considering that iTunes had a big role in saving The Office.

On the plus side, the shows are free, and the video quality is purported to be better than on iTunes. But “looks good and it’s free” doesn’t sound quite so visionary. Is it good enough for you?