Hey Apple, What About Renting TV Shows?

Coming down from the high of St. Steve’s Macworld keynote yesterday, it dawned on us — movie rentals are great and all, but what about television program rentals? Matrix shmatrix, what if I want to spend a weekend burning through an entire season of Weeds? Until it fixes this glaring hole, I don’t see Apple TV being quite the Netflix killer people are making it out to be.

TV programming is proliferating on the web. Between the networks’ own sites, Hulu, Amazon and even Netflix, you can stream your favorite TV shows anytime. But these services are only available on your PC, not your TV set; the selection offered is limited, unlike DVDs, which generally offer most of the show’s run; and downloads (if available) are for purchase, not rental.

When it comes to creating a download TV rental service, three issues seem to come into play: price, availability and greed.

An older movie on iTunes will cost $2.99 to rent. But buying a 22-minute television show will still cost $1.99. The price of TV seems pretty steep at that point. Be honest, do you need to own it? How many times are you actually going to watch that episode of House? Even renting at 99 cents a show, it would cost more to download the first seven episodes of Arrested Development‘s first season than it would be to rent those same episodes on disc one of the DVD set.

Second, if Apple rents TV shows via download, how many episodes do you get at a time? Lining up a TV series in your Netflix queue is easy and economical; each disc gets you multiple shows at once. So Apple would need to bundle a bunch of episodes into one download to offer the same value. But even if Apple assembles multiple episodes into one package, under its rental terms you’d have just 24 hours to watch everything, which gets a little tricky if you’ve got a bunch of one-hour dramas. Apple could do something on the back end to mitigate this, but then rentals get complicated, and Apple likes to keep things simple.

I’m sure Apple and Amazon are trying to get TV shows available for rental download, but perhaps the licensing terms are too stiff. Hollywood is making a pretty penny selling us those shiny discs and it’s not unreasonable to think networks and studios are hampering the efforts in an attempt to squeeze more dollars out of us. Plus, Apple’s relationship with certain networks (paging NBC!) has been downright hostile in the past, with price being the main issue.

TV shows on DVD are addictive. How many times have you stayed up way past your bedtime with a newfound TV show, saying to yourself, “Just one more episode…?” We’re impatient when we like something and we expect to be satisfied right away. Download rentals are the perfect solution. The “video store” would never be out of what you want, it would be open all the time, and you’d probably never buy another DVD agai–. Oh wait, i think I just answered my own question.

Until Apple addresses the TV issue, I won’t be ditching my Netflix subscription (and its queue, which is bursting with TV goodness) anytime soon.

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